Editors’ Note: As part of our U.S. summer associate program, each of our 2017 diversity fellows is taking turns interviewing a senior lawyer at the firm to learn about her or his individual career path. On May 31, we kicked off the first of our weekly Diversity and Inclusion Spotlight series with an interview with Washington, D.C. partner Natalie Fleming Nolen conducted by Kirk Coleman, a rising 2L at Columbia Law School. The following is an excerpt from their conversation.
Kirk: What made you want to practice law, and what bought you to MoFo?
Natalie: My decision to practice law was not a direct one. I wanted to be a lawyer when I was young. When I was about five or six I became obsessed with [the television show] LA Law. I don’t know how my parents let me watch it. I wouldn’t let my five – year –old watch it, but, I decided I was going to grow up, I was going to be a lawyer, and I was going to marry Blair Underwood. I had a vision in my head for my life.
When I got to undergrad, I was a psychology and English major. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to practice law, so, I decided to spend three years in Bangkok teaching and traveling Asia. I met a lot of interesting people who were lawyers with interesting jobs. I decided to take the LSAT from Bangkok and then decided to move to the United States to go to law school.
Why MoFo? I think that one of the things that drew me to MoFo is one of things that has made me stay at MoFo: I really like the culture. The type of work is very interesting, and the commitment to pro bono was well known at my law school, and within the industry. I really wanted to have a robust and respective pro bono practice.
Kirk: Can you talk about things that contributed to your success when you were an associate? More specifically, can you talk about having a mentor or sponsor?
Natalie: I think sponsors and mentors are very important and they are not the same thing. Mentors can be peers. They can be people who are even junior to you; they can be people at other law firms; and they can be people that do completely different professions. Think about who you can gain information from and the skills that you can use at different points in your career.
Sponsors are people within your organization who have a certain amount of clout to help you get from one stage of your career to the next.
Once I started to focus on specific practice areas, I began to understand whom I needed to work with and get to know better. If I wanted to move up in the organization, I had to think about trying to get myself on the right cases, attending practice group meetings, and improving my visibility within the practice group.
Kirk: How have you navigated work-life balance? How did you deal with stressful situations both with your children and with work? And how have you learned to do that over the trajectory of your career?
Natalie: You have to embrace the fact that sometimes there are things that are happening at work that mean you have to focus on work. Last year I was in New York for a trial for three weeks. I was able to fly home one day to see them in that three week period. I wouldn’t say I was winning “Mom of the Year” when I was away from my kids for three weeks for a trial.
There are other times when I have to focus on my kids and I have to rely on my team of associates and partners. I explain that I have to focus on family right now and I’m going to either change things around so I’m working later hours or earlier hours or have someone else on the team run with something I normally would have run with.
I think it is just trying to figure out how to be comfortable with the lack of balance and realizing that sometimes you feel like you’re doing pretty well on everything and sometimes you feel like you’re doing horribly at everything.
Kirk: At what point in your career did you decide that was the trajectory that you wanted to go? How did you adjust to that new trajectory?
Natalie: For a variety of reasons, I felt that I had to apologize for the fact that I like my job. I just got to the point where I stopped apologizing and was willing to admit to myself and to other people, “I want to be partner.” It’s also a vulnerable thing because we all know not everybody makes it. It’s hard to vocalize wanting something you may not get. You have to be willing to step out on a limb and take that risk.
I think it’s important for senior associates and mid-level senior associates who are interested in partnership to be vocal about it. Be vocal within the firm, but also in your network. You will be surprised by how many business development opportunities might come your way.
Kirk: Can you talk about how you see your identities, not just related to the disadvantage, but as an asset to the firm? Do you think your identity has helped you as a lawyer?
Natalie: I definitely see my identity as an asset. I have some people that I have brought into the firm as clients, and they are all women of color. I probably will have mostly women of color as clients and that doesn’t bother me. We know each other through a variety of different means and networks.
I think having a diverse set of friends and contacts is helpful because we want to be in more rooms and companies. The networks I have are an asset. I think it is important to bring different diverse forces to the table. I believe my voice is important and that it is an asset.