It was the fall of 2012, and Kathryn M. Walker had her law degree. She had her license, practice area, job and clients.
Now she needed to add another crucial piece to her career: a mentor.
So she called Sarah Zearfoss, the dean of career services at her alma mater, the University of Michigan Law School.
“Do you know anyone in Chicago who is a bada– female litigator?” Walker asked Zearfoss. “Because I need one of those.”
Walker, an attorney at The Patterson Law Firm LLC who focuses on contract disputes, needed a mentor because her decision to sidestep Big Law in favor of a small firm left her with a tiny professional network in Chicago.
She was not looking for another job, but she did want to connect with an attorney outside of her seven-lawyer firm to act as a sounding board and guide through the challenges of her profession.
Walker’s preference was to connect with a female trial attorney in Chicago who was also a Michigan law alumna. Zearfoss combed her network and came up with Shayna S. Cook, an attorney with Goldman, Ismail, Tomaselli, Brennan & Baum LLP and also a member of Step Up, an organization that connects professional women with teen girls.
“It was like mentor-by-force,” Walker said later, jokingly.
Cook immediately accepted Zearfoss’ request. Not long after that, Walker and Cook met at Hub 51 for lunch. Over Brussels sprout salads, the two attorneys discussed the business of law, trial practice and work/life issues.
Cook also invited Walker to a Step Up event.
“It’s absolutely critical for female lawyers to network, but it’s just as critical that we network outside of our profession,” Walker said. “We’re in a sales profession. We need to meet people who are not lawyers.”
Walker’s love of Step Up continued to grow, and in January 2014, she joined the group’s board of directors.
This dearth of female talent in the highest ranks of the legal profession means that women like Walker looking to connect with lawyers of their gender need to work harder than their male counterparts to do so. It’s a problem Walker has not experienced at Patterson, but one she knows from the experience of friends.
“I have a lot of friends who have ended up in big places (and) a lot of them have ended up in teams with all men,” she said.
“I have a friend at a big firm … and she works with all guys. She’ll come to work on a Monday and find out that the partner took everybody out on his boat that weekend and she didn’t get invited.”
Walker’s persistence grabbed Cook’s attention.
“The whole approach that she took about being proactive to find a mentor and listening to her mentor’s advice was really impressive,” Cook said.
“It’s so easy to get caught up in your everyday work as a lawyer and not think about the long term. And the fact that she was looking at long-term issues and being proactive about it was really unusual.”
It’s something Cook did not do at the start of her career. But she has developed mentors as her career progressed and now leans on lawyers such as Patricia C. Bobb, a woman Cook calls “probably the top trial lawyer in the city of Chicago,” and Marla Persky, a retired general counsel with Boehringer Ingelheim.
“The reason that it’s nice to find female mentors … is that especially in male-dominated fields like being a trial lawyer, it’s a different challenge that you face being a female trial lawyer,” Cook said. “Having mentors who have been through those challenges really helps you get perspective.”
Walker loved Step Up for that very reason. Founded in Los Angeles in 1998 and launched in Chicago in 2006, Step Up currently works with 250 young women in Chicago. From 2010 to 2013, girls involved in the program have a 100 percent high school graduation rate and a 100 percent college acceptance rate.
The program partners with four schools: Johnson College Prep, Farragut Career Academy, Muchin College Prep and Carl Schurz High School, home of 18-year-old senior Eva Guadarrama, one of Walker’s mentees.
“I was paired up with this very awesome girl who is painfully shy,” Walker said. “Step Up does a lot of confidence building and a lot of interaction with professional women, and it was really obvious that Step Up was the reason she was going to graduate high school and go on to college.”
Guadarrama found out about Step Up through her school adviser. She met Walker through Step Up’s mentor-mentee linking process that resembles speed dating, where potential mentors and mentees circle a room and meet each other.
“I really liked her because she was so friendly, and I thought we had a little more in common,” Guadarrama said. She requested Walker after the speed-pairing and was thrilled to be paired with her.
One of Walker’s other mentees is English Henderson, an 18-year-old senior at Muchin. English met Walker through the same speed-pairing event, and though the two were not paired, Henderson has continued to seek Walker’s advice and guidance.
“I also put (Walker) on my card,” Henderson said. “I didn’t get her, but I put her on the card because we did have a lot in common, and I thought she was very friendly and funny.”
An aspiring journalist, Guadarrama credits Walker with helping her through her shyness.
“I’m kind of shy, and she taught me how to speak up and be able to be more social,” Guadarrama said. “That will help me professionally one day.”
Walker first helped Guadarrama when they were paired at Step Up’s Career Connections Conference, an event that Kendall College hosted last year. At the end of that day, Walker said, Guadarrama told Walker about how different her time at Step Up was compared to her usual school day.
“People at school often don’t even see me,” Guadarrama told Walker.
At Schurz she is reserved, a supporting player on the school stage. But with Walker, Guadarrama is the star.
Both girls are still in the process of choosing their respective colleges. Henderson, a peer tutor at her school, is already passing on some of the lessons she has learned from Walker and Step Up.
“I always encourage (students) to try to join Step Up, but even if they don’t, I’ve definitely used some of the things that I learned in Step Up to help them out while we are in school,” Henderson said.
From Bobb and Persky to Cook, from Cook to Walker, from Walker to Guadarrama and Henderson and from those two girls to other students, this chain of Chicago women rolls on.
“Being a lawyer can be very fulfilling but it can also feel like it’s petty fighting,” Walker said. “I’m going into trial two weeks from now on a case that has no business going to trial. It should have settled. It’s a $30,000 breach of contract from 2009.
“So when I’m compiling a lot of time and energy into something like that it’s nice to have a place like this where I know that everything we do is benefiting the next generation.”
Walker smiles as she talks about the organization. Her job now is to raise money and awareness for the group’s events, such as their Women’s History Panel on Wednesday and their Shine and Dine fundraiser in August, while continuing to help girls such as Guadarrama and Henderson on their path to college.
Their involvement with Step Up won’t map their future completely. Walker knows that.