Learning to Lead: Takeaways From Women in Technology Law

By Minna Fingerhood
For the third annual ALI (Advocacy, Leadership, Innovation) Program for high school girls, 30 students from across the San Francisco Bay Area spent two days meeting with women leaders in the law. Photos by Sarah Anne Risk

The 2018 ChIPs ALI Program held June 12 and 13 in San Francisco gave female high school students and recent graduates a unique introduction to the world of high-tech law. Over the course of the two-day program, 30 students from across the Bay Area gained exposure to a diverse group of women leaders. A panel of eight associates and partners from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe talked with students about their career paths. And a second panel discussion held at the Salesforce legal department featured in-house counsel from three different tech companies. Here are the top six things I’ll be taking with me as I continue my undergraduate studies and pursue a career in law and technology. While the advice was intended for the students, the information is invaluable for any woman at any stage in her career.

 

1. Eloquence Is Important

In her opening remarks at Orrick, ChIPs CEO and Board Director Mallun Yen wasted no time expressing the importance of communication skills. She told students she wasn’t confident in speaking with adults until age 30. “Becoming a good public speaker is a very learnable skill,” she said. “The best public speakers out there have had years of training and practice.” This skill is critical to being taken seriously and should not be overlooked.

 

2. A Technical Background Is Not Required (Although it May Help)

Orrick partner Amy Van Zant highlighted the ways in which technical expertise is not required in the field of technology and law. Van Zant, who studied history and philosophy, now specializes in IP, including work involving telecommunications and semiconductors. She explained that her first case involved GPS technology in cell phones, and while she did not have a technical background on the science, she was still successful as a patent litigator. “If you are willing to dig in, and if you have an aptitude for understanding technology, then it really isn’t any kind of impediment to being a patent litigator to not have a technical degree,” she offered. “Uultimately, you have to be able to explain exactly what this technology is, how it works, why it’s useful, why it’s new and novel, and if you can’t do that in plain English then you are not going to win your case anyway.”

Annette Hurst, a partner in Orrick’s Intellectual Property Group, offers a slightly different perspective. While she does not hold a technical degree, she feels it can add credibility to a technology lawyer. “While it is true that you can be successful if you want to be an intellectual property lawyer or another technology oriented lawyer without [a technical degree], you can be more successful and you can be taken with more credibility in a high-tech setting. You will market your practice better as a lawyer if you do have one.”

 

3. Be a ‘Psychologist and a Lawyer’

A number of the lawyers underscored the perhaps unexpected and emotional side of the legal profession. Amanda Galton, co-head of Orrick’s global tech companies group, described the hands-on support lawyers in her speciality provides clients. “When I have done my job right is when clients say I am like their psychologist and their lawyer. And then I know I have really succeeded and really embedded myself in helping entrepreneurs grow.”

Van Zant offers a similar perspective. She recalls that at age 28, she interviewed her first witness, an older man who was scared of being deposed. “There is a reason they refer to lawyers as counselors — because you do have to have the ability to talk someone off the ledge and play all different roles of a counselor, both in giving advice and in making your client feel better when they are scared to death that their business line may be subject to closing if they lose a particular case. There is a psychology at play there.”

 

4. Being a Good Lawyer Requires Empathy

Following up on the previous point, empathy remained a prominent theme for other panelists. Cecilia Ziniti, the head of legal at robotics and AI company Anki, said it was important not to underestimate the people side of the profession. This means developing excellent interpersonal and communication skills. This was further exemplified in the number of ALI speakers who said their time working in hospitality industry helped prepare them for providing excellent client services. In those settings, they learned to communicate with a diverse range of people and focus on making each customer feel satisfied. Thus, the opportunities to grow and foster legal skills are abundant and everywhere, and may even be in areas that you least expect.

 

5. Seek Out Mentorship

The role of one — or multiple — mentors is extremely important especially for women seeking out a profession that is traditionally male-dominated. Kayla Delgado, a managing associate at Orrick, emphasized the value of a mentor. She said  it is important to look in the past and remember the kinds of people who have previously made you comfortable. “Know your safe space and trust yourself,” she says.

Lara Graham, an Orrick associate, recommends finding multiple mentors. Find one who “makes you feel good” and another “who can support you professionally.” Delgado advises that while an emotional mentor can often be a peer and resemble a more casual relationship, try to be more deliberate and thoughtful with your professional mentor. In order to maximize this experience and not waste anybody’s time, have goals in mind and milestones you would like to accomplish, so that your professional mentor can find tangible ways to help you.

 

6. Maximize and Seize Your Opportunities

Perhaps the most reiterated and crucial tip from this year’s program is to maximize and seize your opportunities. Life can transpire in unexpected and meaningful ways when you challenge yourself by confronting uncomfortable situations. Melinda Haag, partner at Orrick and the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California from 2010 to 2015, says that “fear is a great motivator.” She told the students that had she not taken the risks and opportunities presented to her, she may not have achieved as much in her career. A corollary to this lesson is the need to be bold and confident. While easier said than done, promoting this practice can only lead to further success for any woman.

 

About the author

Minna Fingerhood studies Science, Technology, and Society (STSC) at the University of Pennsylvania. She plans to pursue a career in the intersection of technology and law.