July 22, 2019 Spotlight on Diversity and Inclusion

How I Expanded and Diversified My Network

By Lisa L. Atkinson

As a solo or small firm attorney, you spend a lot of time in your own little world—you have your circle of friends, colleagues, and clients with whom you are familiar. But this insular world can stifle the growth of your law firm. Only by venturing outside your comfortable silo will you find new opportunities. The key to successfully building your business is to expand your network—and not just with people who look, act, and think like you do. This is how I’ve done it.

After graduating from law school, I was determined to move to Washington, D.C., and set the world on fire with my commitment to making a positive difference for Indian Country. The only person I knew in D.C. was a friend I’d met through the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) at Oregon State University. He worked with someone who lived in a townhouse with other young professionals, and they had just had a roommate move out. Through networking, I was able to move into an incredible place directly behind the U.S. Supreme Court, for a reasonable rent. From our rooftop deck, I could see “Equal Justice Under Law” every day. Talk about inspiration!

As I began my career at a federal regulatory agency, I started meeting people who were very different from me—different races/religions/sexual orientations/economic backgrounds. The day after Mardi Gras, I was stumped as to why so many people on the Metro had black marks on their foreheads. My Irish co-worker came in with the same mark, so I asked what the deal was. I was so embarrassed that I had no idea what Ash Wednesday was—it just wasn’t familiar in my world. I was also forced to face my personal preconceptions and biases. D.C. was the first time in my life where the majority of people around me were African American. I grew up in a very small, rural town, and there were literally two African American families (and two Hispanic families, and two Asian American families). I was frequently asked “what are you,” even though the town was only 30 miles from an Indian reservation. In other words, my town was extremely homogeneous. It wasn’t until I left for college on the other side of the state that I really began to see and learn about other cultures—including my own.

In D.C. I quickly found “my people” (Natives). I’d never been around so many Native people before. It was eye-opening learning the differences and similarities among our tribes. I’d never met Native people with very dark skin, but many of the tribes from the East Coast had married former slaves and their descendants. I’d also never met blonde-haired and blue-eyed Natives, but one of my supervisors was an Absentee-Shawnee and had these very physical characteristics. Diversity was all around me, even among “my people.” The D.C. Native crew worked in all areas—politics, law, lobbying, regulatory, investments, etc. Although we all shared a political status, we were pretty different. When the insurance guy’s boss wanted to get the ear of a legislator, he would ask the staffer to ask her boss for a meeting; when the lobbyist wanted to get his tribal client before a Senate committee on a pending bill, she would ask the legislative assistant to add the client to the list of those providing testimony. Many of the people I met in D.C. are still my friends, colleagues, and referral sources.

After I got tired of D.C., I came back to the Pacific Northwest. I worked at a firm for about a minute before it became clear that I do not have the personality for such work. I was suddenly without a job, wondering what to do with my $80,000 legal education. I was encouraged to open my own firm practicing Indian Law. I didn’t have a strong counter-argument as to why I couldn’t, so I blindly hung out my shingle. I already had a good contact with the Northwest Intertribal Court System, for whom I’d been a judge pro tempore during law school. I contacted them and was put back into the pro-tem/appellate pool. Soon after that I received a call asking if I’d be willing to sit for a judge who had a trial conflict. My first day on the tribal bench was a jury trial—talk about jumping in headfirst! The chief judge heard good things about how I conducted the trial, so the next time he needed a pro-tem, he asked for me again. This led to more pro-tem judicial assignments and eventually a request for me to serve a different tribe as their chief judge. As I gained more and more experience, I received more and more referrals for judicial work—not just in Washington State, but across the country. To date, I have served as a judge at all levels for more than 40 tribes across the United States. And it started with a simple phone call to fill in.

Thankfully, the small office space I found to rent was in a busy conference center building associated with a college. Even better, one of the other small offices was occupied by an experienced general practice attorney named Michael W. Hall. He generously took me under his wing and gave me work on some of his client matters, teaching me how to do wills, trusts, probates, and general business transactions. He also taught me a valuable lesson about “rent law”—don’t do it, no matter how strapped for cash you may be. The one and only family law case he referred, due to a conflict, turned out to be one of my worst experiences as a lawyer and taught me that there are some areas of law that I just shouldn’t practice. I will forever be thankful to him for his mentorship and generosity.

It was during the early months of opening my office that I randomly happened upon a sound and smell familiar to me—I heard drumming and smelled the distinct, mouth-watering aroma of frybread. I followed the heartbeat of the drum (and my stomach), even though I was horribly nervous, to an open house for a local tribal economic development group. There I met a lovely Quileute man, Walter Jackson (may he Rest in Power), who told me that his tribe was looking for an “out-house” attorney. I went out to their breathtaking reservation on the Washington coast and met with their tribal council. Quileute was the first tribe to hire me. From networking with Wally and having him refer me to others, I’ve gone on to represent a number of tribes and tribal agencies.

After almost three years in my shared space at the conference center, it was time to take the leap into my own office space. Again, it was time to expand my network to bring in work in the other areas that I wanted to practice, namely wills, trusts, probates, and business formations. Again, going outside my comfort zone, I joined the local chamber of commerce, as well as a professional networking group. Between the two, my client list more than doubled, and many of those clients remain friends and referral sources today, more than 17 years later. My clients come from all walks of life, all races, religions, sexual orientations, and economic backgrounds. I treat them all with respect and serve them diligently and efficiently, and, in turn, they are the greatest source of new client referrals. I also reached out to two very well established estate planning attorneys in my town. Both of them generously shared templates, answered questions, and helped clients I knew had needs that were above my skill level at the time.

More recently, at the suggestion of a law school friend, I applied for and was awarded an ABA GPSolo Diversity Fellowship. I had been a member of the ABA for a few years prior to this, but I had never really participated in any events. The Diversity Fellowship presented yet another opportunity to expand my network. I attended my first ABA meeting in Chicago and met a number of attorneys and judges from around the country. I got to know my fellow Fellows, each of whom has a unique practice area and life story different from mine. Through that fellowship, I have been able to collaborate with other diverse attorneys in presenting CLE topics on diverse issues to a larger ABA audience. Also through this fellowship, I met members of GPSolo leadership who started appointing me to committees, including my current position as Chair of the GPSolo Diversity Board (thank you, Chair Melanie Bragg!). I have been able to use this position to propose initiatives to promote and increase the presence and service of our Diversity Board and to begin a very rewarding outreach program to encourage grade-school children to consider legal careers by showing them that lawyers come in every shape, color, and age (a huge thank you to my mentor, Daniel J. Tann, for suggesting this program). I now have several ABA mentors to whom I can reach out with questions and issues, regardless of where each of us is located. This in and of itself is worth the price of membership! I also have a referral network for clients, friends, family, and colleagues who might need legal assistance in areas I don’t practice or in other parts of the country.

At that same as the Chicago ABA meeting, I met a wonderful judge from Arizona, Judge Elizabeth R. Finn, who invited me to join the National Conference of Specialized Court Judges’ meeting. The NCSCJ is the ABA Judicial Division conference encompassing (and embracing) tribal courts. From Ellie’s generous invitation (thank you, Ellie!), I was offered a leadership position that would continue to move me up in the Conference, to my current position of chair-elect. The Judicial Division and our Conference are full of judges of diverse backgrounds and experiences, and genuinely nice and interesting people. Through networking within the Judicial Division, I’ve been able to propose and/or present judicial CLEs on extremely important topics such as the Violence Against Women Act, handling cases with reluctant domestic violence victims, and human trafficking in the casino industry (and beyond). In each of these instances, I have been given a platform to educate on issues important to Native people—a perspective and viewpoint to which many attorneys and judges have never been exposed. I have also been privileged to serve on the Tribal Courts Council, which is the Judicial Division group for attorneys and judges who practice in or are interested in tribal courts.

All of these opportunities have been possible through networking. No matter how uncomfortable it is to put yourself out there to groups and situations with whom and with which you are not familiar, it will always result in personal (and often professional) growth.

I was in my beautiful, Native-art filled office for almost 15 years (and in the conference center three years before that). Now it’s time for another transition. I have recently relocated to Hawaii. While this has always been a dream/goal, it occurred more quickly than I had anticipated (or prepared for). This will lead me to my next adventure in networking, and I’ll admit that I’m terrified. I don’t know anyone on the Island except my husband, our real estate agent, and our mortgage broker (and the last two are being paid to be helpful). Although I am Native and we have a lot in common with Native Hawaiians, I will still be an outsider (maybe not considered a haole, but also not kanaka). I am facing the challenge of networking again with a different set of cultures and norms (for instance, a popular bumper sticker in the Islands is “Slow down, this ain’t the Mainland,” illustrating the different pace, and attitude about pace, of people who all live on a small rock in the middle of the ocean).

So, what’s my plan? I’m going to take all the things I’ve learned about networking over the years and use them to the best of my abilities. This will include concerted efforts to: join local professional and philanthropic organizations; engage in group recreational activities (I pulled my batting gloves and mitt out of retirement in search of a softball league, and I’ll be looking to join a halau, or hula school); find and frequent small, local businesses to develop those relationships; asks friends, colleagues, and family for contacts (I’ve already been advised that there is a fantastic naturopathic doctor near our home); take an interest in local issues and politics; and offer my skills as a volunteer where appropriate. Oh, and I’ll be feeding people, which is a language that transcends all races, cultures, ages, and sexual orientations. I’m confident that what I’ve learned about networking and people over the years will help me be successful in the next chapter of my life. If I can do it, so can you.

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Lisa L. Atkinson (lisaatkinsonpllc.com), J.D., is a tribal court judge who also maintains an active law practice focused on business formations, contract drafting and negotiations, Indian wills, estate planning, and probate. She is a member of the Northwest Tribal Court Judges’ Association, the National American Indian Court Judges’ Association, and the ABA Judicial Division’s Tribal Courts Council, is chair-elect of the ABA Judicial Division’s National Conference of Specialized Court Judges, and is chair of the GPSolo Diversity Board. When not on the bench or in the office, she is likely to be creating edible art in her kitchen or gardening.