Sonya: When did you first realize that you wanted to become an attorney? What first drew you to a career as an attorney? What do you enjoy most about your career now?
Jennifer: I was in the 4th grade. I was constantly defending the underdog or maligned. My 4th grade teacher kept calling me a lawyer. I was intrigued. As for what drew me to leadership with the HNBA, giving back to my community has always been important to me. I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school let alone college and law school. I saw that mentorship/sponsorship was critical to success. What was completely absent from my experience was modeling. I didn’t see anyone like me (culturally or even socio-economic status) and it felt very lonely. I stepped up to lead the HNBA because I want to make sure our programming focuses on young kids, law students and young lawyers. We need to be out in our communities so that these kids and young adults see people that look like them succeeding in this field.
Sonya: Have there been specific people (real or fictional) or pivotal situations/events that have inspired you, helped shape your career?
Jennifer: As I mentioned, my 4th grade teacher had a significant impact on my decision to not only be a lawyer but to pursue higher education. I grew up in a tough neighborhood and under tough circumstances; nobody at home was really encouraging me to study or to go to college. However, my teachers did, specifically Mr. Cannon who noticed my intellect. Going forward, “being smart” became part of my identity. I excelled in school and really enjoyed learning, which continued as a love for learning and teaching. My family circumstances also influenced me. My mom came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 14 years old. I watched my mom and grandmother work hard, struggle and being mistreated. Both were in abusive marriages and didn’t know their rights. Early on I learned the importance of an education and, more importantly, knowing one’s rights.
Sonya: Are there particular traits that you believe successful attorneys share? Traits that you believe you have yourself and which you look for in hiring outside and in-house counsel? How about common traits you’ve observed in other successful GCs?
Jennifer: The best lawyers know they don’t have all the answers. They are okay saying “I don’t know” and they take a pragmatic approach to solving their client’s problem. I have always prided myself in providing exceptional client service. I have always understood that how I define a “win” must align with how my client defines a win. It’s also important to appreciate your entire team from your assistant to the most senior person. Give credit where credit is due. Take responsibility for when things go wrong and don’t blame your team. These are two traits I value the most and I believe are common to the most successful and happy lawyers.
Sonya: What professional accomplishment are you most proud of? What would you like your legacy to be in your company/law department? In the legal profession?
Jennifer: I would say becoming an equity partner and growing my practice to a point where it was robust enough that I no longer worried about where the work was going to come from but instead about how I was going to get it all done. That was very rewarding. At some point, I decided I wanted a different kind of challenge. I really enjoyed working with my clients on strategy and on big picture issues affecting the company. I quickly realized that my skillset really suited being in-house, and I’m pleased with my decision to come. Coming in-house to be the Global Head of Litigation forLenovo, the largest PC company in the world, is a professional accomplishment I’m also very proud of.
I hope my legacy at Lenovo and the HNBA is that the people I served felt heard, respected and listened to. That I was someone they could count on, someone who is responsive, honest, a person of integrity who lives by the golden rule.
Sonya: Have you had mentors/sponsors? Have you acted as a mentor/sponsor to others? Is mentorship/sponsorship important? How? Why?
Jennifer: My first mentor in the legal profession was Chelsea Grayson, a classmate from law school (a peer), and she is still one of my closest friends. Although Chelsea did not have any lawyers in her family, she grew up with lawyers and she had worked at a law firm. We were study buddies: We challenged each other with healthy debates and spent countless hours studying. Chelsea was incredibly generous in showing me the ropes and sharing information that many may consider basic and obvious but was news to me (e.g., when to start outlines, importance of class ranking, law firm reputations, interview tips, etc.) I wouldn’t say I have had other “mentors” as that term is understood. I’ve had sponsors throughout my career, which were mainly law firm partners I worked for and who fought for me.
Sonya: Think about the legal profession over the course of the next ten years. What do you see as the big changes that are coming which you believe will most significantly impact the profession and the role of the GC/in-house legal department?
Jennifer: I’m hoping the legal profession will go back to the days when law firms and clients were truly partners and it was about the relationship. The practice of law has become so commoditized that often the relationship and good customer support gets lost. I have no doubt that this will change. Artificial Intelligence, and machine learning, will transform those areas of the practice that should be commoditized. Those remaining areas that are truly reserved for humans will force lawyers to provide top-notch client service.
One additional point. I’ve heard seasoned attorneys say that civility has been lost in the profession. I wouldn’t go that far. When I left the law firm world, I saw civility returning with the younger generation of lawyers. I hope it will stay.
Sonya: Describe a significant challenge you have faced in your life or career. How did you overcome it? What did you learn from it?
Jennifer: As mentioned above, my biggest challenge was not knowing what I don’t know. Being the first in my family, initially I was intimidated by the legal profession. But then I quickly realized that there are some good qualities universal to all fields: a strong work ethic and a robust skill set. I have always had a strong work ethic so that was the easy part. As for the skill set, I love to learn. In fact, I see myself as a lifelong student and am always working on improving my skills. This goes hand and hand with the strong work ethic part. Once I realized that these qualities really benefited me in my career, my challenges didn’t seem as daunting. In fact, being the underdog and often feeling out of place, motivated me. I wanted everyone to know that I and others like me belong in this profession. That it is not reserved for the elite.
Sonya: What does Diversity & Inclusion mean to you? How important is D&I to you personally? As a GC? To your company/legal department? What advice do you have for GCs and others seeking to make a positive impact on the progress of D&I in their organizations and in the legal profession?
Jennifer: As a Latina lawyer, diversity and inclusion (D&I) has always been important to me. I started practicing in 1998 and although that is not that long ago, I have often been the first Latina partner or equity partner in a firm, which is remarkable in a bad way. I have mentored and sponsoredother diverse lawyers and developed programs to make sure diverse lawyers feel like they are a part of a bigger team and that they belong. But I’m only one person and this can’t just fall on the shoulders of diverse lawyers. If we are going to reach real parity in the legal profession, everyone, diverse and non-diverse, must be committed to diversity and inclusion. At Lenovo, diversity and inclusion is in the fabric of who we are as a company. Our founding brought East to West and West to East. We have always valued different cultures, views, etc. This is more than an initiative, it’s part of our identity.
As for the HNBA, it is part of our mission to change the face of the legal profession. It must reflect the community it serves. And at 79 percentWhite, it does not TODAY. This is not just about Latinos, it is about all diverse and unrepresented groups. If leaders in the profession are serious about D&I, then they need to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. They need to be at all affinity group conferences searching for good talent. They must stop assuming that good diverse talent is going to come to them. I get frustrated when I hear people say that there is a pipeline problem or that employers don’t know where to find good diverse talent. That is nonsense. The HNBA has a speed networking session and a career fair. Yet, the number of participants (corporations and law firms) is not even close to the numbers you see at a typical on-campus interview at law schools. If leaders in the profession are serious about finding diverse talent, they need to use the affinity bars as a resource and see them as partners in this mission for equality.
Sonya: If you were not General Counsel of your company (or of any company or even a lawyer at all), what career do you think you would most like to pursue?
Jennifer: No doubt a chef. I love to cook. It is truly a passion of mine and when I retire (a long time from now), I do plan on going to culinary school.
Sonya: Knowing what you know now about being a lawyer and a GC, if you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? At what point in your past would you give yourself that advice?
Jennifer: That is such a tough question. I don’t think I have “arrived,” and I could still use this advice: “Slow down. You don’t have to be super woman. You are enough, and you are doing a great job.” I could have really used this advice when my kids were younger, and I was a single mom.
Sonya: Tell me something fun about yourself. A personal skill or hobby that, while not directly related to your day job, you feel makes you more well-rounded, helps you be better at your day job and/or helps relax and focus you to do your job as a GC better.
Jennifer: I already mentioned cooking, which is very relaxing. The other thing is I love the outdoors and I’m an adventure junky. I’ve climbed waterfalls, repelled, ziplined, run many marathons, hiked some scary mountain sides, swam with sharks and eels. I’m always looking for an adventure and being in the outdoors grounds me. When I am surrounded by nature, everything is put into perspective. I remember that living my higher purpose is not optional.
Sonya: Hashtag/Brand yourself in 5 words or less (For example, mine is #SelfiesWithSonya )