July 16, 2015

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Renie Yoshida Grohl

The logical progression of Renie Yoshida Grohl's legal career was not the result of a master plan, but of good fortune. "All these job opportunities came to me," she said. "I have to tell you, I feel very fortunate."


In private practice, she spent the majority of her time representing savings and loan associations. She then moved to the policy and legislative side of things and served as Senior Vice President and Group Executive for Regulatory Affairs at the U.S. League of Savings Institutions (a group that has since merged with the American Banker's Association). Then, onto the regulatory side of the industry, serving as Deputy General Counsel at the Federal Housing Finance Board, before becoming Senior Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Fannie Mae. She currently serves as the Budget Officer for the Business Law Section of the ABA. She received her AB, magna cum laude, from Radcliffe College, Harvard University, and her law degree from the University of California at Berkeley.

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What made you want to become a lawyer?

I grew up in a family business, and I always thought that I would go into business. I went to law school thinking that the training as a lawyer would help me eventually in running a business. But I enjoyed practicing law so much that I made a career out of it. 

What was the family business?

We were in the nursery business. My parents and grandparents ran a business of growing potted plants. My brothers went into that business. 

You were admitted to the California Bar in 1976, and you attended law school at Boalt. How many women were there?

Actually 40 percent of my class were women. It was the beginning of the era in which there were large numbers of women going to law school. 

And how many Japanese women?

Those were the days in which affirmative action was being practiced in the colleges, and in particular, at the University of California. So as a result, there were a lot of Asians in my class. We had a very active Asian Law Student Association, and we did all kinds of things as a group. While there weren't that many Japanese women, there were a fair number of Asian-American students in my class. 

In those days there was no tuition to go to the University of California. You had to just pay fees. I had many friends, for example, in high school who were able to go to UC Berkeley. They could work part-time and make enough money to pay for their apartment, food, and books and graduate without any debt. And others commuted from home. So the access to higher education in California in those days was a lot easier than it is today. I feel for the kids who go to law school today, many of whom graduate with a large amount of debt. 

It was a very different time, and particularly for minority students, or for low-income students. There wasn't a financial barrier to higher education in California. It wasn't only the UC system that was free. We also had a very good community college system and state university system. Our Asian Law Student Association was funded by the university. We even had an office at the law school. 

How has the practice of law changed for women?

One of the big things is today you can look to almost any area of the law and see women who have achieved great progress. We have women on the Supreme Court; we have women who are general counsels of major corporations in the United States; we have women who are partners in law firms of all different sizes. 

In terms of role models, there are a lot more of them for women who are coming out of law school today than there was when I graduated from law school. 

What's the next thing that needs to be done to create more gender equality in the legal profession?

My entire legal career, I've watched women grapple with the work-life balance. Women want to be full partners in a law firm, yet, at the same time, the rigors of practicing law conflict with their desire to have children and a sane family life. 

When I was at Fannie Mae, we had a job-sharing program. We would hire two lawyers to share one job. It was incredibly successful. The lawyers had to work extra hard to make sure they kept each other apprised of what was going on. I had two women lawyers who shared a job, handling complex business transactions. They never lost a beat; the clients never complained. It was a wonderful experience for the clients as well as for the lawyers. I would like to see more creativity in terms of the ability to practice law and have a work-life balance. 

Prior to working for the government, you were a partner at McKenna, Conner & Cuneo. What did you enjoy about practicing in a traditional law firm setting?

Oh, I loved doing deals. I loved working with a client who had a goal, a transaction that they wanted to get done, and working through the transaction to conclusion. There was nothing ever better than a closing dinner, or being at a closing, and seeing all of your hard work come to fruition. I always had terrific clients. They were always wonderful to work with. 

And so what didn't you enjoy?

Oh, filling out time sheets. I wish there was some better way of charging your clients for what you do. I know there's lots of alternative billing ideas that are out there, but I had to fill out time sheets and keep track of every minute of the day. 

You went on to serve as Senior Vice President and Group Executive for Regulatory Affairs at the U.S. League of Savings Institutions. How was that experience?

This job was more of a policy job, because it was a trade association that represented savings and loan associations. I'd spent a lot of my time representing savings and loan associations when I was in the private practice, so I knew the industry. I was responsible for reviewing regulations that were going to impact the industry and producing comment letters. There were 23 different regulatory agencies that I wrote comment letters to on behalf of the association. I also got involved in writing legislation and working with the lobbyists. The U.S. League has since merged into the American Bankers Association.

You were then Deputy General Counsel at the Federal Housing Finance Board (an agency that no longer exists) in Washington, D.C., where you managed the legal division. What made you want to move from private practice to government work?

Up to that time, I had spent my entire career, as I viewed it, on one side of the table. I had a financial institutions practice, which meant my clients were in a highly regulated industry. A lot of my work involved interactions with federal and state regulatory agencies. 

I wanted to get a sense of what it was like to be on the other side of the table. I felt like it would make me a better lawyer to understand the perspective from the regulator's side, not just from the side of my financial institutional client. So that's why I took the job at the Federal Housing Finance Board. And because I got to manage the legal division, I got to understand all aspects of the practice of law representing a federal agency; from government ethics to enacting regulations to providing interpretive advice. It was a fun way to learn a lot about what it was like to be a lawyer in a regulatory agency. 

So what don’t private lawyers know?

It's recognizing that there are lots of nuances on the regulatory side. A lot of time if you're representing clients, you are looking at things from, I don't want to say a narrower perspective, but you're focused on one thing, and don't often understand what the politics are. 

Sometimes you do, but sometimes you don't know. It's interesting to see what the give-and-take is and what the politics are that drive why the agency wants to take a certain position. 

Not just the interaction between the people who are working at the regulatory agency, but there's that overlay – if the Democrats are in power or the Republicans are in power, each party has a certain agenda as to what they want government policy to be. 

After the Federal Housing Finance Board, you served as Senior Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Fannie Mae. What were the highlights of this position?

I got to use all the skills that I had developed over the course of my practice of law – the transactional skills, the policy work that I had done at the U.S. League, as well as the regulatory work that I did at the Finance Board. At one point, I had about 50 lawyers who reported up through me, and they were wonderful to work with. My broad background in lots of different areas of the practice of law that related to mortgage finance was helpful, very helpful to me in guiding them in doing their work for Fannie Mae. 

There's a logical progression to your career. Did you plan this out?

No, I didn't plan it. I have to tell you, I feel very fortunate, because all of these job opportunities came to me. I was contacted for the job at the U.S. League of Savings Institutions.   The same thing was true with the Federal Housing Finance Board. It's also how I got involved with the ABA's Business Law Section. A friend of mine asked me to chair the Savings Institutions Committee. It helped me in my career and helped me to meet a lot of interesting people. 

You're currently the Budget Officer for the Business Law Section of the ABA. What are your responsibilities?

I have oversight for the finances of the Section. The Business Law Section is incredibly well-run, it has a terrific staff. They are responsible for putting together the budget, which gets approved by the officers and the Council. We run the Section a lot like a business. We have a business plan that gets reviewed every year. Every four or five years we have a strategic planning session to look at whether we have the right goals in our business plan, and revise our business plan accordingly. 

The finances of the Section follow the business plan, and it gives us the guidepost by which we make decisions about how we want to spend money. My other major responsibility is with respect to the Section’s reserves. The Section has substantial reserves that are invested through the American Bar Association. We have an investment policy, and we basically allocate our investments based on that investment policy. So once a quarter, I work with the officers, and an investment committee to look at our investments and decide whether or not we need to make any changes in the investment allocation of our long-term reserves. 

I've been involved in a lot of things at the American Bar Association that involve finance. I was on the Audit Committee for a number of years, and chaired the Audit Committee. 

I’m currently involved with the ABA Retirement Funds. It's an entity that was created by the American Bar Association to make it easier for lawyers to set up sophisticated retirement plans. This program is especially beneficial for sole practitioners or small law firms. I’m also on the AEFC Pension Plan Administrative Committee. So I seem to be the person who has gotten a lot of volunteer responsibilities because of my financial background. 

What advice would you give to young lawyers, and especially women?

The general advice I always give to young people when trying to make career decisions is to figure out what makes you happy. I know it's hard for folks to get jobs these days, but try to follow your dreams. Particularly in the practice of law, it tends to be long hours, so you should do something that you really enjoy. 

Is it important to seek out a mentor? Did you?

I had various mentors during my career, and I would also say that is something young lawyers should do. And not just one mentor, but multiple mentors. Different mentors can provide assistance in lots of different ways. 

I am currently involved in a mentoring program for high school students who are interested in professions that relate to the law. I enjoy the opportunity to talk to these high school students, and listen to what they're thinking, and help them think through what they want to do. 

What high school is it?

It's De Anza High School in El Sobrante. 

If you had to pick two traits that helped you succeed in your career, what would it be?

Not being afraid to work hard. The other is being true to myself. One of the toughest parts of practicing law is to be honest with your clients as to the risks involved in certain transactions, or the likelihood that something's going to happen. It's always hard to give the bad news, or the news the client doesn't want to hear. But I’ve always felt that as tough as that is, it's really important to do that. For me, it's always paid off in the long run. 

Would you recommend government work for young lawyers?

Government service is great, particularly in the current job market. It's a great place for a lot of young lawyers to look for entry-level jobs. It's a great place to get training as a lawyer. 

As we've heard, you've been very active with the ABA over your career. What's the value of your involvement?

Oh, I’ve met so many wonderful people. I have so many friends from my involvement in the American Bar Association. And I laugh, because I was just recently at the Business Law Section Spring Meeting. I used to go for the programs, the legal education, the networking – all that sort of thing. Now that I'm retired, I still go, so I can see my friends. 

Thank you so much!