MoFo Women’s Spotlight: Julia Balas, Leonora Shalet, and Christine Wong Discuss Their Paths from Lateral to Partner

Editors’ Note: The Women’s Strategy Committee (WSC) at MoFo comprises both male and female partners and associates who strive to foster women attorneys’ development and professional success.

During a recent program hosted by the WSC, Corporate associate Shauna France spoke with three incredible female partners who all joined the firm as lateral attorneys. The women on the panel included co-chair of the firm’s Securities Litigation, Enforcement, & White Collar Defense Group Christine Wong, partner in the Private Funds Group Leonora Shalet, and Corporate Finance partner Julia Balas. Christine, Leonora, and Julia discussed their unique paths to partnership, what led them to MoFo, and why they chose to stay.

Shauna: If you could describe your path to partnership in one word, or with one theme, what would it be and why?

Christine: One word to describe my path would be “circuitous.” The reason why I say that is that my career has had so many twists and turns, as I’ve had several different jobs along the way. I started as an associate at a large law firm, and then I went to the government working as an assistant United States attorney (AUSA) in the Southern District of New York. After that, I was in-house working as head of international compliance at Fujitsu.

Leonora: If I had to pick only one word to convey my career journey, it would be “steps.” Like Christine, my journey has been a path that has included many different steps along the way.

Julia: My word would be “straightforward.” For me, I had a goal to make partnership that, although planned, was really a team effort.

Shauna: What made you decide to come to MoFo, and what has made you stay? 

Julia: I lateralled here as a senior associate, and MoFo was the third firm where I had worked. I had started my career at another firm in New York, and wasn’t sure what to expect from MoFo L.A., but it was like coming home. I felt accepted right away and was quickly integrated to the office, getting involved in the firm’s recruiting efforts, Women’s Strategy Committee, and the local Women’s Initiative Group. The people I have met along the way, the support I received, and the guidance towards the path to partnership are what have kept me here.

Shauna: Leonora, how about you? 

Leonora: I lateralled to MoFo in early 2020 as a partner. I chose to lateral to MoFo and choose to stay because MoFo has a very impressive platform with a deep bench of knowledgeable lawyers in complementary practice areas. The firm has a presence in a number of key jurisdictions, which allows us to attract and retain large clients with global needs. To me, this was and continues to be very appealing.

Shauna: What were some of the challenges in coming to a new firm, especially at a more senior level? 

Christine: MoFo does a really good job of helping laterals overcome integration challenges. The firm is very intentional about putting people on committees, and on running events to give you more exposure. For example, in my first year I was asked to be one of the co-chairs of the Women’s Summit and, through that experience, I got to know Bita Rahebi, who was my co-chair, and a large number of women partners whom I was working with to speak at the Summit. Now I’m one of the co-chairs of SLEW (Securities Litigation, Enforcement, & White Collar Defense), so I think the firm was very intentional about making sure that I had visibility.

Leonora: One of the main reasons I have really enjoyed working at MoFo is the enthusiasm and positive attitude of our associates. I agree with Christine that MoFo does a really good job at finding opportunities to introduce you to people internally, which is crucial, but also to people externally.

Julia: For me, there were very few challenges, honestly, because of the level of sponsorship I received during integration. The L.A. office had weekly lunches that allowed for networking, and the summer program was also a great way to integrate into the firm. As I funneled through assignments while running the summer program, I learned who was assigning what, what the big cases in the office were, and what the big patent projects in the office were.

Shauna: Is there any advice that you learned on your career journey that want to share? 

Julia: Don’t turn down any opportunity. The summer after I started as an associate was a very busy one, but by saying yes to work, I found great opportunities to meet people and to get more familiar with what the firm does and what the office does. Take any opportunity you can to get to know your new colleagues, and to take advantage of the firm’s lateral orientation. And just because somebody’s practice doesn’t overlap with yours doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get to know them. 

Shauna: What is one thought or misconception you had as an associate but, now that you’re a partner, realize is not true? 

Leonora: Many associates think partners are not approachable. I think it’s the title and the perceived age difference that makes people think, “this person doesn’t have the time or have a desire to speak with me,” or that “they lead a different life” but that’s not true.  We are here for our associates and want to support them in every possible way. 

Julia: I always felt a level of intimidation with the partner title and was a timid junior associate. At first, I was afraid to ask questions and now, as a partner, I realize that thoughtful questions are all I want to hear from the associates. I want to know that they’re still working on the project, they’re truly thinking it through, and that they feel comfortable coming to me. The beauty of a legal career is that you’re constantly learning and expanding your knowledge base. The partners are also always on that learning path.

Shauna: As a more senior associate, I always tell summers and juniors, “Don’t judge yourself by your summer or your first six months in practice because you will be amazed when you look back after that first six months at what you’ve learned.” Don’t think that you don’t know anything because you will soon know everything.

Christine: Oftentimes, when you’re a junior associate, you feel like you have no control over your destiny. Matters are given to you, and you take them. At the same time, I think you do have control of the type of subjects that you want to work on. If you’re an associate and you want to work on a particular area, put yourself in front of the partners who do that work, and introduce yourself so that you’re on the top of their list when one of those matters come in.

Shauna: Is there one thing that you wish you had known as either a junior, mid-level, or senior associate that if you could go back and tell yourself now you would?

Julia: The value of your network. I always felt like networking was this concept that I just wasn’t good at. Then, at some point, I had watched enough business development trainings and events like this Women’s Spotlight series, and realized, “Oh, your network is just the people you know.”

Christine: One thing that is helpful to remember is that people approach their career development in different ways. It’s really no use to compare yourself to other people and how other people are doing things. It’s about knowing who you are and what can help you get where you want to be.

Leonora: There are things along the way that will be thrown at you, and you’ll worry about how you’re going to handle them. It is important to try not to worry too much and not to compare yourself to the next person. A positive attitude is important, not just for you, but also the people around you, specifically as you begin to consider career progression.

Shauna: What advice would you all have for an associate who is looking to make partner?

Leonora: If you have a good attitude and you’re willing to support the group in its efforts—efforts with client work as well as any other endeavors that the group may take on—or you’re actively participating in the summer program, you’ll get noticed.

Christine: Attitude goes a long way. But I think also what distinguishes associates is their willingness to really own a matter and really put themselves in the shoes of the partner on the matter. That makes us think, “Oh, when this person is a partner, they will think like a partner.”

Julia: Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Many of us suffer from imposter syndrome in various circumstances, but sometimes we just have to overcome that and put ourselves in vulnerable situations and ask questions that maybe we are embarrassed to ask, or maybe aren’t sure how to ask. Use the knowledge that you have. Use the experience that you have and run with it.

Learn more about MoFo’s long history of advocating for and advancing women here.