Editors’ Note: As part of our ongoing Diversity and Inclusion Spotlight series, Jolene Geisel, a rising 2L at Vanderbilt Law School, and Meredith Angueira, a rising 2L at Harvard Law School, both of whom are 1L Wetmore Fellows, interviewed San Francisco partner Claudia Vetesi. In the excerpt below, Claudia, whose practice focuses on defense of consumer class actions and complex commercial litigation, discusses her role in the legal profession and the importance of mentorship.
Jolene: What made you want to practice law?
Claudia: I actually wanted to be a ballet dancer for a long time, until I was about 16 or 17. When I went to college, I chose to major in English because of my passion for reading and writing, and dance was my minor. Being a lawyer wasn’t even on my radar until I started doing debate. I always considered myself a pretty shy person, so it was probably one of the scariest things I could ever imagine doing, but it turned out that I loved it. There was some element of debate that was similar to what I loved about dance, which was the performance factor. I decided to apply for law school. At that point I was kind of sold on the whole idea of it.
On the other side, both of my parents are immigrants, and it was hard for me to see them struggle to understand their rights. Going to law school also made me feel like I could become an advocate on behalf of my family and myself. It made me feel like I had some kind of power.
Jolene: Was there anything about the legal field that surprised you when you first started?
Claudia: When I learned of all the different practice groups, I didn’t really understand what they meant. So, during the first five or six years of my practice, I tried every different area, from IP and trademark to copyrights and securities law. It was an amazing opportunity for me to test the waters.
Ultimately, I found my place in the Consumer Class Action Group. I really like the procedural, chess-game part of being a class action lawyer. It’s very rarely about the facts; there is a fair amount of strategy that goes into it. I just didn’t expect there to be such a variety as to what you could do as a lawyer.
Jolene: There have been a lot of changes in your field recently. In fact, you wrote an article on the BMS application for consumer class actions. Do changes in legal procedures like this make your job more challenging? If so, how?
Claudia: I love that the law is constantly changing. I feel like when you keep up with the law, you can talk to potential clients or existing clients and advise them in a way that makes you feel like you’ve got a leg up and you have real expertise. Change also makes it more interesting because you’re not copying and pasting the same brief over and over again; every time it’s slightly nuanced.
Jolene: Speaking to the topic of being an expert and building confidence, how has being a diverse lawyer impacted your confidence? Were there any challenges you faced and, if so, how have you overcome them?
Claudia: As a junior lawyer, I lacked a certain amount of confidence and was initially concerned about whether I was the right fit at MoFo. Having done well academically throughout my life, it was very difficult to be critically evaluated and have people discuss my work. But, at the same time, it’s validating because when you get good feedback, you realize, “Oh my gosh. I am smart.”
Jolene: As a mentor, what have you learned from your mentee about yourself? How has that shaped the way you mentor others?
Claudia: I’ve realized how important it is to really invest in the person you’re mentoring so that they can do a better job. I appreciate when my mentees admit they aren’t quite sure about something and ask me. The mentor-mentee relationship is very much a back-and-forth relationship. I have to be able to explain what’s expected, they have to be comfortable asking questions, and I have to make sure I’m following up.
Meredith: We had unconscious-bias training recently at MoFo where we discussed the idea that people try to minimize the salience of certain characteristics that might make them different to prevent any potential stigma. Have you ever experienced any type of implicit bias or felt the need to cover? If so, how did you deal with that?
Claudia: Because I am more of a quiet, introverted person, I felt like I didn’t talk enough in meetings, or maybe I wasn’t as assertive as I should be. I took that feedback and tried to remember that, while you want to be true to yourself, you also want to be your best self, and sometimes that means putting yourself in a slightly uncomfortable situation. The more you push yourself to be a little more vocal or project more confidence, the more you grow into it, and thus you end up becoming a better version of yourself.
Meredith: Have you had any relationships with mentors in terms of different racial, ethnic, or gender lines that impacted you as an attorney or person?
Claudia: My mentor Will Stern and I differ in gender, age, and race. I was drawn to Will because I liked his style of litigating, his strategic thinking and enthusiasm, and the way he approached the law. He gave me feedback to improve my skillset, and I was able to learn a lot from him because of our differences. I think that having diversity in mentorship helps you grow. You can never have too many mentors, especially when you’re a junior attorney, and they should be people from all backgrounds.