Closing the Deal:
A Conversation with Patricia Phillips and the Honorable Samantha Jessner
by G. Lisa Wick
“Right where you belong” is the theme WLALA President Stacy Horth-Neubert has selected for this year. Patricia Phillips and her daughter, the Honorable Samantha Phillips Jessner, are two examples of women who are at home in the law. Separated by a generation, and vastly different experiences, both Ms. Phillips and Judge Jessner are inspirations in their own right. If you ever have the chance to talk with either Ms. Phillips or Judge Jessner, seize the opportunity. They are both very warm, open, interesting, and incredibly supportive women.
An Uncommon Path
At a time when there were hardly any women in the law, Ms. Phillips began her first year at Loyola Law School as a single mother with two small children. By the time she finished law school, Ms. Phillips had remarried, added two more children to her brood and had her fifth child on the way. Ms. Phillips jokes that her son Paul was born during Constitutional Law and her daughter, Judge Jessner, was born during Trusts and Estates. Incredibly, with five small, bi-racial children, Ms. Phillips began her legal career in 1967.
Ms. Phillips was pregnant during her third year of law school. Only one employer was willing to interview her for a job. After the interview, the interviewer called Ms. Phillips by a nickname that only her family used at the time, tipping her off that her father may have had a hand in setting up the interview. Ms. Phillips didn’t take a job with that firm and turned her focus to studying for the bar and raising her five children. To balance her home life and studying, Ms. Phillips would attend bar review courses and then head to an empty office her husband had in Whittier and study for four hours before heading home to be with her children. After the children were in bed, Ms. Phillips would turn back to studying. Ms. Phillips always felt that it was – and still is – important for women to be able to support themselves and always envisioned being a working mother.
One of the six women who attended law school with Ms. Phillips clerked for the Honorable Otto M. Kaus and called Ms. Phillips to tell her that she passed the bar and should apply for an open clerkship position. Ms. Phillips applied for the position at the Los Angeles Superior Court and began her career clerking for three judicial officers in Department 63 in 1968. As a judicial clerk, Ms. Phillips found mentors in Judge Robert Finerman and the other judges for whom she clerked, and learned who all of the best lawyers were in town.
When Ms. Phillips was ready for her next job, the Honorable Robert W. Kenny (a civil rights advocate and the 21st Attorney General of California), helped Ms. Phillips find her next position. Ms. Phillips knew of the best firms and when Judge Kenny told Ms. Phillips that she should apply to work at Beardsley, Hufstedler & Kemble (later Hufstedler, Miller, Carlson & Beardsley), she was flattered. When he suggested she ask for a salary of $1,000 per month, she was shocked. Judge Kenny told Ms. Phillips not to worry about it, and Ms. Phillips got an offer to work four days per week (one of Ms. Phillips’ initial conditions), making $1,000 per month. The four days per week only lasted about six months before Ms. Phillips started working five days and then eventually seven days a week.
Beardsley Hufstedler encouraged participation in bar associations, and Ms. Phillips jumped in headfirst. Ms. Phillips was the first woman to be elected President of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, the largest voluntary bar association in the United States. She was also one of the founding members of the City Club of Los Angeles (a club established primarily for professional women and people of color who, at the time, were excluded from many clubs in Los Angeles). She has gone on to serve on numerous committees and on a variety of boards.
It Takes A Village
When asked about how she managed a career and five children, Ms. Phillips responded that she was fortunate to have live-in help for 53 years. Ms. Phillips also had a local taxi company in the La Canada area shuttle the Phillips children to and from school and to their various after school activities until the company went out of business. After that, Ms. Phillips briefly hired a limo service, much to the dismay of her children, before a friend graciously offered to shuttle the Phillips family.
Judge Jessner commented that the taxi and limo were the only things that were “hard” to deal with growing up due to her mother’s career. She mentioned that it was challenging when Ms. Phillips volunteered for carpool because that meant arriving at school well before it opened so that Ms. Phillips could maintain her own work schedule.
As an adult, Judge Jessner appreciates that sticking to a regimented schedule is how Ms. Phillips was able to "make it work." While Judge Jessner and Ms. Phillips both commented that they have yet to find balance, Judge Jessner echoed Ms. Phillips’ sentiment that “it takes a village.” Judge Jessner credits a large and supportive family and community of support as major contributors to her professional success.
Much like her mother, Judge Jessner does not shy away from hard work and envisioned being a working mom. Judge Jessner joked that her children probably like her a lot more as a mom that works outside of the home than they would if she had been a stay-at-home mom. She encourages women who are mothers to know their own limits.
A Generation Apart And A World of Difference
Judge Jessner noted that when she graduated in 1991 (from Boalt Hall School of Law), because of women like her mother, the world was her legal oyster -- a stark contrast to her mother’s experience. Ms. Phillips interjected that she was very lucky that she had a lot of good people who looked out for her, and helped her along during a difficult time for women in the legal profession.
Judge Jessner had the opportunity to choose between a career in the public or private sector. Still, her career developed in a similar way to her mother’s. Judge Jessner initially chose private practice, working for Sheppard Mullin, where she was fortunate enough to work with a partner who believed in her and allowed her to second chair a trial as a second-year associate. After that experience, Judge Jessner knew that she wanted more trial experience.
Fortunately, the Honorable Terry J. Hatter was thinking about how to get more people like Judge Jessner more trial experience, too! Judge Hatter had a discussion with Steven Zipperstein (who at the time was the First Assistant United States Attorney to Justice Nora Manella, who was the United States Attorney at the time) about the lack of women and people of color in the U.S. Attorney's Office. Judge Hatter wanted to come up with a plan to encourage more women and people of color to apply. He called Ms. Phillips to talk about how to make a change. Ms. Phillips suggested interviewing Judge Jessner to see if she might be the right fit.
Judge Jessner interviewed and was hired as an Assistant United States Attorney. She commented that a barrier of entry for many lawyers is that they cannot afford to take a job with the government. After two stints in the United States Attorney’s Office, a post at the Inspector General’s office for the Los Angeles Police Commission and a brief stint at Boeing, Judge Jessner decided that she would like to become a judge. Judge Jessner was appointed to the bench in 2007 and has spent the last ten years as a Superior Court Judge. Judge Jessner feels fortunate to have had the career that she has had, but acknowledged that there was a period where she struggled to find her path.
Advice for Other Lawyers
Both Judge Jessner and Ms. Phillips believe that women professionals should never be shy about asking for insight or advice from others. Ms. Phillips notes that there are several young women attorneys with their own firms, some of whom she has never met, who call her regularly to ask her for advice or tips. Very down-to-earth and personable, Judge Jessner acknowledged that it is sometimes hard to figure out what you want to do or even what you are supposed to do, so she recommends looking for mentors to help get the experience necessary to be the right fit when the right job comes along.
Judge Jessner also believes that we each have to work hard to be someone that others want to invest in and we have to be willing to advocate for ourselves. She admonishes that if you cannot advocate for yourself, there is no incentive for anyone else to advocate for you. Judge Jessner encourages each of us to continue to make our case for why we should be the one to take the deposition, or handle a hearing, or get a promotion. She notes that you have to be willing to ask, because it may not even occur to others that you want to do certain things. Judge Jessner believes that we each have to take charge of our own destiny; we should not wait for someone else to make things happen for us.
A Personal Note
As we sat for lunch on Good Friday, Ms. Phillips and Judge Jessner introduced me to two extraordinary women, the Honorable Lourdes Baird and Andrea Ordin, who happened to be dining nearby. Ever humble, both Ms. Phillips and Judge Jessner suggested that I should be profiling either Judge Baird or Ms. Ordin instead of either of them. Perhaps more profiles are in order. But, indeed both Ms. Phillips and Judge Jessner are right where they belong.
G. Lisa Wick is Chair of the Solo and Small Firm Practice Committee. Ms. Wick is Partner at Roshan Wick LLP.