Women in Public Service

Daniel Bever '17
Guest Columnist

The second annual Women in Public Service event occurred last week. This year, the event included several features, most notably a panel, several roundtables, a reception, and an insightful keynote address by State Senator Jennifer McClellan (’97).

History and Purpose of Event

The annual event was founded last year by outgoing Virginia Law Women President Casey Trombley-Shapiro Jones (Law ’17), who wanted to create a public service counterpart for Virginia Law Women’s “Women in Big Law” event that would correspond with student ambitions relating to public service.  

The event enabled law students to interact and network with alumni in public service. It performed the function of disabusing law students of the notion that there is only one route into public service: entry directly after graduation.  Finally, it offered a valuable opportunity for law students to meet, interact, and network with alumni in public service.

Overall, the event left students invigorated and more knowledgeable about what it takes to enter a career in public service. They are several gateways of entry. If addressed correctly, attorneys can grow professionally and engage in a collegial bar. There are numerous ways to practice law, and, as the event demonstrated, numerous ways to practice in public service.  Public service attorneys expressed their support for events like Women in Public Service, which highlight career alternatives to the traditional law school-to-private firm pathway many students elect to take.

One Event, Two Parts

The components of the event came in two parts. The first component featured a panel and several roundtable discussions. The second included the keynote address and reception. 

While the event did not officially commence until 4:00 p.m., several panel speakers arrived earlier, interacting with other law students and practitioners over coffee and light refreshments. Building relationships and promoting interactions between law students and practitioners proved to be, as planned, one of the event’s greatest boons.

Panel and Round Tables

The panel, “Private Pathways into Public Service,” was well-attended. It was one of the event’s biggest draws in 2016, and the trend continued. The panel included five attorneys: Elisbeth Bennett (Clearly Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton); Sarah Hall (Securities and Exchange Commission, formerly Covington); Sarah Dearing Johns (Associate Counsel at Virginia Commonwealth University); Jennifer Klar (Partner at Relman, Dean & Colfax); and Lisa Lorish (Assistant Federal Defender, Federal Public Defender’s Office, formerly of McGuireWoods).  Trombley-Shapiro Jones, having launched the event in 2016, served as the panel’s moderator. Notably, the panel brought a broad swath of experiences from across the legal field: government, large-firm practice, and specialized private practice—in the immediate context, civil rights law. Particular areas addressed included the benefits and drawbacks of beginning with private practice and transitioning into public practice and strategies for overcoming obstacles from taking a private pathway into public service.

The roundtables are a new feature of the event that offered a relatively intimate environment for interaction. The groups included three or four attorneys and five to ten law students apiece. For their part, the law students certainly did not let the opportunity to engage in a frank discussion pass by, and collegially engaged attorneys with questions on each of the respective topics. Responding in kind, the practitioners did not miss the opportunity to offer valuable insight. Each roundtable had a distinct theme, “Getting Started in Public Service,” “Networking and Relationship-Building,” and “Professional Development.”  

Reception and Keynote Address

The second portion of the reception, beginning at approximately 5:30 p.m. included a networking reception and keynote address from State Senator Jennifer McClellan.

Dean Risa L. Golubuff offered an introduction to the keynote speaker, noting her ability to demonstrate that a private practice and public service need not be dichotomous. Sen. McClellan (Law ‘97) began her career in elected office in 2005, on election to the Virginia House of Delegates.  Some of her key legislative accomplishments include statutes addressing stalking and reforming underage marriage laws. She worked on several committees, including Courts of Justice and Education. In her keynote address, she noted the importance of pursuing a career in public service, when that is the earnest desire of the law student, rather than capitulating to a perceived obligation to pursue a career in private practice.  She went on to discuss the important role women play in leadership positions and lamented common-sense errors that can occur in policy-making when policy-makers are exclusively male.  She also noted the importance of claiming every issue as a woman’s issue, in particular noting the importance of women speaking out on matters such as energy rather than curtailing themselves to issues such as women’s health.

Contributors to Success

The event would not have been successful without generous efforts from several members of the Virginia Law community. Virginia Law Women organized the event with the help of its co-sponsor, the Public Interest Law Association. The Public Service Center and the Program in Law and Public Studies also significantly supported the efforts of the organizers. Finally, while not an official sponsor, Career Services offered valuable assistance by getting event coordinators and alumni together.

The Virginia Law Women’s Women in Public Service event was held at the Law School on April 6, 2017.