On September 27, 2016, WLALA Board member Sarah Quist interviewed Katherine M. Forster, the WLALA 2016 Distinguished Service Award recipient, past WLALA President and a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson.
Katherine Forster is a native Angeleno who was described at the WLALA Awards & Installation Dinner as a person with “compassion, humor, and a practical common sense.” She balances a busy legal practice with significant pro bono and community service obligations. Ms. Forster is an extraordinarily talented lawyer, in labor and employment law and in pro bono. She has received accolades as a Daily Journal Top Labor and Employment Lawyers and has been named among the Top 100 Women Lawyers in California. Furthermore, Ms. Forster is an all-around upbeat and affable person. This is evident from her receipt of the 2016 WLALA Distinguished Service Award, and this was evident to me during the interview.
Ms. Forster attended Princeton University and earned a degree in politics. Graduating at the early age of 20 afforded Ms. Forster the opportunity to explore different places. She packed up her ’66 Mustang and drove across the country with her Mom to Washington, D.C. Little did she know that her love for music would also bring her together with the love of her life. She met Jill, her spouse of 22 years, while working together in a music store in Washington, D.C. After a year, Ms. Forster and Jill moved back to the West Coast and landed in Santa Barbara. Ms. Forster worked as a project manager for a defense contractor for five years prior to attending law school.
When Ms. Forster sought a new intellectual challenge, she aced the LSAT and went to the USC Gould School of Law. She graduated Order of the Coif and received numerous honors, including the national USC Scribes Award for Best Student Note. Her note focused on contingent work arrangements and reforms to make contingent work more viable for long term employment. Ms. Forster adds that today, as part of the “gig” economy, it is even more common for people to make a living on a contingent or project basis. Legal developments, such as the Affordable Care Act, have made this more possible. As demonstrated by her award-winning Student Note, Ms. Forster knew she wanted to practice employment law beginning in law school.
After graduating from USC, Ms. Forster clerked for Judge Edward Rafeedie, Senior U.S. District Judge in the Central District of California. She gained insight and experience that has proven valuable in her legal practice.
What made you decide to become a lawyer?
After five years working in the defense contracting business, I asked myself where I planned to go with my career. I considered pursuing a Masters in Engineering. I had started college as an engineering major so this fit into my interests. However, I was at a crossroads. I liked the logistical challenges that I solved as a defense contractor but I sought a way to apply my intellectual potential more fully. I started researching and thinking about different careers. I had to include practical considerations in the process since I would be leaving the workforce and my pay check behind to pursue schooling for a new career. I thought about the standard of living I envisioned, the length of schooling various careers required, and whether the career would challenge me intellectually. The longer the degree would take, the longer I would need to make a significant financial sacrifice while not earning an income. While I did not grow up around lawyers, I started thinking about law as a career and researched it online. I decided to take the LSAT and see how I did. Fortunately I did well, and this allowed me to take the leap into a new career in the law.
I put myself through law school. This came at a great financial sacrifice. I had a lot on the line and had to do well in law school or I may have found myself bankrupt financially.
(Note from the author, Ms. Forster did far better than well in law school, as evidenced in her biography above.)
What have been the biggest challenges you have faced as a lawyer?
Managing time is the largest challenge. The nature of my legal practice is that I have a lot of matters pending at once. I handle approximately 35 to 50 active cases plus provide advice and counseling. Sometimes so many people are depending on me for so much. I overcome this challenge by having confidence, working hard, and assuring myself that everything will be fine.
Another challenge earlier in my career was developing my style as a lawyer. I am not a lawyer who grew up with family or friends in the law who could serve as role models. I did not come to the law being well connected in the community. I do not golf. I am a woman with a big personality and physical stature to match. These factors do not fit into a typical image of a lawyer. However, I have found that the key to success is just to be yourself, do it your way, and have confidence.
As a founder of the Joint Task Force on the Promotion and Retention of Women Lawyers, where do you see the future of women in the legal profession and what are best practices for advancement of women in the legal profession?
We started the Joint Task Force approximately eight years ago and have seen some progress. In my generation, Generation X, we historically did not say anything when we observed sexist things. Society is getting better at shining a spotlight on problems and not hiding them. Millennials are now calling out sexism openly; this is a big contribution and Generation X is following suit. While there are still plenty of challenges ahead, I am optimistic. There are expectations on women lawyers because of their gender that women continue to have to challenge. This will get better. I have seen first-hand the increase in women promoted at Munger Tolles in the past five years. It’s important for firms to place an emphasis on implementing the right policies, such as non-gendered parental leave and equal pay. I also think strong training on unconscious bias and how to help correct for it is invaluable.
We heard a statistic at the Installation Dinner that the number of women who are equity partners at law firms is very low. What advice would you give to women who aspire to be a partner at a law firm and change this statistic?
If partnership is what you want, go for it. Define success for yourself, and do what makes you happy. If you are concerned that what makes you happy is not consistent with partnership, do not necessarily let this steer you away from partnership. You could be the first person to define partnership the way you want to see it. Role models are great, but keep going even if you do not have a role model that fits the style you want to see as a partner.
How did you become involved in pro bono legal services?
This is not an advertisement but the truth: Munger, Tolles & Olson includes pro bono and community service among its core values. While it may be atypical for some lawyers to participate in pro bono or community service, it is not unusual for partners and associates at Munger Tolles. This core value is one of the reasons I chose this firm.
I had also participated in social justice action in college and law school. For example, I led a group of college students from Princeton to the 1989 pro-choice march on Washington D.C. In law school, I found my voice in helping to advance women’s rights through the Women’s Law Association and later WLALA. Contributing through community service has become an important part of my life.
How did you become involved in the Downtown Women’s Center Board and has being a lawyer contributed to your success on the board?
I came to the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC) through WLALA. Former DWC CEO Lisa Watson used to speak occasionally at WLALA board meetings. DWC was fighting a development which would take away its parking lot. I volunteered to talk to the Community Redevelopment Agency to explain how the loss of the parking lot would impact DWC’s volunteers and programming abilities. The ladies at DWC were so grateful that they had tears in their eyes, grasped my hands, and they sent me a heartfelt handwritten thank you note that I still have. Shortly after that, DWC invited me to join its board. DWC is an amazing organization that tackles an important social issue. Women’s homelessness is unique, as a large percentage of homeless women were in abusive relationships, and homelessness presents heightened safety risks for women. So my work at DWC has a feministic aspect to it.
I have been able to contribute substantially to the DWC board with my legal skills. There are only a few lawyers on the DWC board. I have been able to help the organization strategically navigate challenges with my legal knowledge as a backdrop. I have developed an expertise in advising non-profit organizations. I currently advise approximately a dozen such organizations and have worked with more than 20 total over the years.
What lessons did you learn from serving as WLALA President?
I learned to be more deft as a leader. As a law student I served as the USC law school liaison to WLALA and observed then WLALA President Eileen Decker’s leadership style. I learned a lot from her approach and that of others throughout the years. I have learned that to be effective I have to let go to some degree. This is a skill that is challenging for me and, I suspect, for many internally motivated people.
I am gratified that many people have told me they enjoyed my term as President. However, in the middle of my term, I did not feel like I was doing a good job. Former WLALA President Kathleen McDowell, who had recruited me to WLALA and who is a fellow Munger Tolles partner, met me for lunch about halfway through my presidency. I told her I felt like I was spinning my wheels and had not yet accomplished much as WLALA President. Kathleen helped me take a step back and gain perspective. It is easy for driven people to get caught up in what they are doing and lose the wider perspective. This was so valuable and transformative for me to hear.
Do you have any tips for young lawyers for achieving a successful work/life balance?
Know yourself. Pursue that which makes you happy. For me, in addition to food and wine, I love the community work I do and I love music. I have pretty broad taste ranging from classic rock, heavy metal and punk to blues, 80s alternative, rockabilly and surf, and I make it a priority to attend as many concerts as I can. I recently saw Guns ‘N Roses at Dodger Stadium less than a week after seeing the same show in Seattle! I make what I love a central part of my life. Some people value attending their kid’s weekly soccer games or Sunday dinners with their extended family. It’s different for each person. Whatever you value, build around this core. Some days you will have to stretch to get it all done, sure, but always return to that which makes you happy.
Sarah Schuh Quist, University of Wisconsin Law 2007, is a WLALA Public Interest Grants Committee Co-Chair and a federal government attorney in Los Angeles, California, where she practices civil, tort, and corrections law.