Panel: Women in Public Service

Taylor Elicegui '20
Historical Editor

On Wednesday, March 28, Virginia Law Women brought nine women from various public service careers to discuss networking, relationship building, private pathways to public service, and getting started in public service. After three panels, everyone gathered in Caplin Pavilion to hear from Conniel Malek '06, Director of True Costs Initiative. The event simultaneously inspired and educated students interested in public service at some point in their career.

The Networking and Relationship Building roundtable focused on the importance of being the type of person you want to hire and always putting your best foot forward. Gail Johnson of the DOJ Federal Torts Claim Act Section told a story about one of the best networking efforts she had ever witnessed. It involved no awkward, forced conversations; instead, the applicant demonstrated her work ethic and diligence when she didn’t think anyone was even watching. During the networking, another division of the DOJ was considering multiple candidates for an incredibly competitive position. The hiring attorneys had cut one prospective candidates until there were few enough that they could attend the same conference. The candidate introduced herself at the beginning and throughout the conference, the hiring attorneys witnessed the candidate attending panels while others went shopping, taking notes while others texted, and following up with panelists while others simply moved onto the next event. By the end of the conference, although the attorneys hadn’t spoken to her since the first day, they were so impressed with her that she got the job.

The same combination of politeness and diligence can impress others and advance your career. Tiffany Webb, a public defender, told us that she often gets compliments from prosecutors because she treats her clients with respect. These compliments translate into easier relationships with prosecutors, allowing her to more effectively represent her clients. Likewise, Jennifer Ricketts '88 of the DOJ Civil Division advised the room to always strive to maintain a friendly relationship with opposing counsel. When the opposing counsel denied her request for a delay early in litigation, Ricketts likewise denied their request for a delay at a much more pivotal point in the case. By being uncooperative at an earlier point, the attorneys discouraged the other side from being flexible when they needed it. Ricketts also advised us about the importance of writing thank-you notes. Throughout her tenure at the DOJ, Ricketts saw younger political appointees come into the Department and use thank-you notes as a way to bond with career attorneys and recognize their achievements.

The other panels brought together attorneys of various backgrounds and focused on the importance of interpersonal relationships. Nellie Black ’20 explained, “The Getting Started in Public Service panel included a range of perspectives from all walks of public service careers, including the DOJ, public defense, prosecution, and non-profit work. All of the panelists were able to give valuable advice about getting involved in public service directly or moving to public service after some time at a firm, and each talked about some of the challenges of their public service career as well as how rewarding and fulfilling they find their work to be.” After attending the Private Pathways to Public Service Panel, Ellie Riegel ’20 noted, “All of the women present for the panel had incredible experiences in both private practice and the public sector. They encouraged us to be flexible, maintain professional relationships, and get out of our comfort zone in law school.”

After the panels, Malek inspired and informed the audience with stories and advice from her career. After graduating UVa Law in 2006, Malek spent ten years at Alcoa, Inc. (yes, the same Alcoa from Learned Hand’s United States v. Alcoa, Inc. 148 F.2d 416 (2d Cir. 1945) decision), working on commercial contracts and compliance and representing the company in Africa and South America. Then Malek moved into her current role, Director of the True Costs Initiative, a nonprofit organization striving to improve corporate accountability and strengthen legal systems in the Global South. Malek described the process of moving from the private to public sector as a potentially frustrating process that requires a great deal of patience and resilience. Others questioned her commitment to public service, given her private sector background. By refusing to be deterred by failure or criticism, though, Malek eventually found her dream job.

To deal with disappointment, Malek urged the audience to, “always remember your why.” Malek told us her why—what drives her to fight for the environment, sustainable development, and corporate accountability. During her childhood in Jamaica, Malek recalls driving to the beach with her parents and noticing large patches of red dirt on the hills, a stark contrast to the foliage everywhere else. Malek asked her parents, who gave her a comprehensive yet accessible answer (for a twelve-year-old) and explained that the patches were a result of mining, prompting a conversation about the competing interests of economic development and environmentalism. That conversation sparked Malek’s passion and inspired her career.

VLW’s Julianne Toia ’19 organized a wonderful event that allowed UVa students to explore public sector careers. The path to the public sector takes many forms and lacks the defined systems for the private sector career search. Programs like WiPS allow UVa students to explore public sector careers and develop the relationships necessary to succeed.