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5 legal titans speak out on women, power and disrupting the status quo

Feb. 8, 2021

Women from around the globe recently gathered virtually for the inaugural ABA World Forum for Women in the Law, sponsored by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.

Forum participants (left to right): Valerie Jarrett, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Joyce White Vance, Loretta Lynch and Connie Collingsworth

Forum participants (left to right): Valerie Jarrett, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Joyce White Vance, Loretta Lynch and Connie Collingsworth

The three-day conference, with the theme of “Women, Power and Disrupting the Status Quo,” featured one-on-one interviews with five widely acclaimed legal professionals:

  • Connie Collingsworth, COO and chief legal officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois
  • Valerie Jarrett, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and distinguished senior fellow at the University of Chicago Law School
  • Loretta Lynch, former attorney general of the United States
  • Joyce White Vance, former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama

Here are some highlights from their conversations with leaders in the profession:

On women and power

Lynch: “Anybody stepping into a position of power like the attorney general or any position of great power would do well to think at the beginning of their tenure about how do you want to wield that power? How do you want to be seen? And what or who do you want to represent? For me, it was easy. I represented the people if the United States. But that means all the people, even the ones that disagree with you. And it means finding ways to bring their voices to the table. It is a balancing act.”

Duckworth: “Usually women are not the ones who have the power. Whether it’s in the business sector or in government, or even in the military, the system is set up that (for) women, there are too many off-ramps that women are forced by circumstances to take on that road to power so that they never get there. … Many of those off-ramps have to do with family and childbearing and lack of support; many … have to do with structural obstructions in the military, (like) women couldn’t serve in combat roles … I mean, you just get to be so tough that you just can’t balance your life and career anymore and you have to choose.”

Lessons from the pandemic

Collingsworth: “(Melinda Gates) was speaking even before the pandemic about the way the U.S. in particular has lagged behind other industrial countries with respect to family leave, and now this new issue about the impact of the pandemic on the women in the workforce with children at home and all the other burdens. She’s really bringing attention to it and it does get to the issue of we’re still pretty archaic with respect to our work practices, our flexibility, our expectations. I think there will be huge changes in the way work is done generally. … But in the interim, I think we’ve still let the traditional role models dictate who’s expected to teach the children, who is expected to give up their priority of a career, and that has to change or we’ll step back as you described generations of progress that we’ve made. … So, we need to both figure out smarter ways to support the children in education systems. … Huge racial disparities with respect to access to digital and online learning, which is another thing that (the Bill & Melinda Gates) Foundation is ramping up its work on as a part of this pandemic, but also just the basic policies about work time, about telecommuting and family leave in general need much more attention at the legislative but also at the corporate level.”

Vance: “We’re all sagging from COVID. Many of us, like me, are still working remotely; some people are out in the world, which comes with its own stresses and strains. And my hope is that maybe this is a moment of crisis and that you should never waste a good crisis. … So, I guess we should, instead of letting go of this moment, maybe we should think as groups together about how we make our world look better because of what we’ve learned. I think we have an opportunity here. … I would much rather see us have a more evolved sense of normal that does let us have more time with our families, more time for community activities and just to be a lot smarter about how we work.”

Role models and disrupting the status quo

Jarrett: “I do think that it’s hard to be what you can’t see, and that we all have dreams, but they’re limited by what we think is the art of the possible. And so seeing somebody who looks like you makes it seem more possible. It’s one of the many reasons I’m so excited about Vice President Kamala Harris. … She’s got all of this richness of diversity, and children of all backgrounds now have a different image of what the second most powerful person in our country looks like. And I think that’s good for everybody to grow up in and it changes the paradigm. And it also helps people who haven’t had role models that look like them, think, ‘Oh, I could do that too.’”

Vance: “I’m all in favor of disrupting the status quo. You know, I think the status quo should be disrupted, right? We get stale, we do things over and over. The answer to ‘Why do we do this this way?’ should never be, ‘Because that’s how we’ve always done it.’ And I think as women we’re really good at seeing where things are working well and should be continued, but also identifying problems and demanding that issues be resolved and that we move forward. I was laughing this morning on Twitter, I saw Sen. (Kirsten) Gillibrand had texted something about, ‘Well of course the Senate can take up confirming nominees and impeachment at the same time.’ And I thought, how like a woman to assume that we can all multitask. Because really we can, and we can evolve and we can do things better. And that’s what disrupting is all about.”

Tackling systemic racism

Jarrett: “I would say start by getting your own house in order. This summer we saw demonstrations in all 50 states around the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, too many others to name here. … People of all backgrounds, all races, all ages saying Black lives do matter. And that’s a very positive thing for society. But what I said to my peers in the business community was, ‘Look, let’s not just point our finger at police and say that we need better policing.’ Why don’t we say, ‘Well, what are we doing as business leaders to address the issue of systemic racism?’ This isn’t something that’s limited to the police department. Lawyers who are in law firms, working in corporations, working for not-for-profits, take a look at the business practices of your organization and say, ‘Do we have an environment that is conducive to inclusivity? Are we living by those values?’ And then our job is to help our clients realize it is in their self-interest to address these issues as well.”

On defining yourself

Lynch: “My greatest influence and my greatest support came from my family. They always tricked me to do more than what I thought I could do. I remember my mother once said to me, after some kind of disappointment, ‘People will look at you and assume they know you just because of where you come from and what you look like. And they’ll try to tell your story, but don’t let them. You tell your own story.’”

Advice for young lawyers

Jarrett: “This is a marathon, not a sprint. Try to make decisions that are increasingly [an] aperture of experiences that you have because as you increase that aperture, including the relationships that you build, it opens up doors for you that you don’t even know you might want opened in 10 years. And so, yes, you can try to plan out 10 years, but more importantly, do the job you have really well, build relationships with people with whom you work, be flexible and open to opportunities.”

Lynch: “Keep your eye on the work in front of you, but always be aware of the world around you. And when you find that thing that touches you and pulls you to use your talents in a way that maybe you don’t think of, that maybe isn’t the traditional way, but it’s pulling you, it’s pulling you for a reason. It happens to all of us at one point in time and what I say to everyone is take that leap. Jump. Fly. Do it. You can do anything. Women run this world. People haven’t recognized that yet, but they do. We do.”

Duckworth: “I think the advice that I tell young women or young people in general is to be willing to lose, to be willing to accept defeat, and then get over it. I think a lot of times, women won’t try something until they know that they’re going to be successful at it, like they do all this preparation before they try it, and what I tell folks is don’t be afraid of defeat.”

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