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Paths + Profiles: Kierstin Jodway on Women's History Month

On this episode of Paths + Profiles, Morgan interviews Waller associate and member of the Women's Leadership Committee and Diversity Committee, Kierstin Jodway. They discuss Kierstin's career path, her wedding at the historical Hermitage Hotel and the issues women in the legal field face on a daily basis. 

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Morgan Ribeiro
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    Women of Waller: Kierstin Jodway

    Welcome to Paths + Profiles, conversations and stories, capturing the personal journeys of our attorneys, colleagues, and friends.

    Morgan: This is Morgan Ribeiro, Waller's Chief Business Development Officer and the host of the podcast. March is Women's History Month, and in honor of that, Waller will be highlighting many wonderful women at our firm.

    Today, I'm sitting down with Kiersten Jodway, an attorney in the firm's labor and employment group, a member of Waller's Women's Leadership Council Steering Committee, and a member of the firm's diversity committee. Kierstin, thank you for being here.

    Kierstin: Thank you for having me, Morgan.

    Morgan: I'm really excited about this conversation. Just to get us started, I think it would be helpful for our listeners to understand your practice and your role here at the firm.

     I know that your practice in particular was largely impacted by COVID and continues to be, now that there's, once again, shifts and regulations and requirements for businesses.

    Kierstin: Absolutely. I joined Waller's labor and employment group sometime before the pandemic. I think it was 2018. So, I've been here for a little over four years now. My day-to-day is advice and counsel to our clients making employment decisions, drafting handbooks, policies, doing internal investigations, and then a large portion of what I do is litigating. Whenever our clients get sued for any type of employment discrimination, working with them through that, defending those cases.

    Lately, things have been a lot different with COVID and a lot of our practice has centered around vaccination policies and navigating this new world that we're in, which is changing on a daily, if not hourly basis.

    Morgan: I'm curious, why did you decide to pursue a career in legal and why your particular practice area?

    Kierstin: I see my path as sort of unique. I didn't grow up with lawyers, I actually didn't know any lawyers growing up.

    I guess I exited my childhood and early adolescence feeling a sense of powerlessness. I had my daughter when I was 16 years old, and through that experience, that narrative of being powerless and not having control over my life, it felt more and more attenuated not so much like my narrative. So, I wanted to reclaim that.

    I thought, what better way to do that then to become a lawyer, right? If I'm a lawyer, then people will respect me and I'll have control, which later turned out to not be the case. That was more of an internal journey than an external one, but that's how I got here.

    In particular, labor and employment came into my life through one of my law school professors, actually. Professor Zehrt, Lynn Zehrt at Belmont. She took me on as her research assistant my first summer of law school, and she was writing an article about Title VII extending protections for pregnancy accommodations and discrimination. I didn't even realize that this was an area of the law that you could practice in, and I fell in love with it. I found myself wanting to work on her article and wanting to learn more. Really, since then, this has been my path and this has been what I love to do.

    Morgan: That's great. Before we jump into more specific areas, as we sort of round out this getting to know you portion of the interview, is there anything that you'd like to share about your life outside of work?

    Ever since COVID, it really feels like that professional and personal line has been blurred. And I think there's some positives to that, for sure, because I don't think we can have a conversation about someone's career without also talking about their personal life and what you either enjoy to do outside of work or anything important about your story.

    Kierstin: Yeah. my daughter is now 12 years old. So, she and the dog pretty much run our household. I met my wife when I was in law school, we have a funny story. She was actually the timekeeper in my first year of law school moot court round. So that was our first interaction. I won that round. So.. Hopefully on merit, but that's how we met.

    She's a lawyer. She's a prosecutor here in town, and we have a beautiful, loving family. We got married, thankfully right before the pandemic in 2019. We were actually the first same sex couple to be married at the Hermitage Hotel. I love sharing that, and I love having that experience because of the history that is the Hermitage Hotel. A lot of people call it the place where women won the right to vote. The suffragettes were based out of the Hermitage Hotel and Tennessee being last state to ratify the 19th amendment, all that work convincing the legislatures all happened at the Hermitage Hotel. So it was a surreal sort of euphoric place to begin our marriage.

    Morgan: That is so neat. I feel like you could even write a story like that. It's really cool to hear the history of the building and that you were able to make history there too.

    As I noted in my introduction, you're involved with the firm's Women's Leadership Council, which we call the WLC and the firm's diversity committee and you're also involved in organizations outside of the firm, such as the Nashville chapter of Lawyers Association for Women, L.A.W. Can you tell me more about your focus and areas of responsibility within each of those organizations and groups?

    Kierstin: Absolutely. So, with the Women's Leadership Council here at Waller, Our focus is really not only on recruiting women, but retaining them, empowering them, growing them as individuals and in their career.

    So, right now and for the past couple of years, I chair the internal networking subcommittee. So my responsibilities are really focused on creating events and situations for women attorneys within the firm to network with each other because we know that external networking and internal networking are equally important. The people we work with are just as likely to become referral sources as people who don't work here at Waller.

    So, right now we're planning an International Women's Day event for early this March, which has been really exciting, and we work on gifts for our new women attorneys. Things like that, that really just highlight and make women in the firm feel special, which I love.

    And then for L.A.W., the Lawyers Association for Women, I'm currently the co-chair of their diversity, equity and inclusion subcommittee. One of the great things we did this past year is we raised over a thousand dollars for Dress for Success, which is an organization that helps women, and especially minority women, getting help with resumes, help with attire for interviews, and really transitioning them into the working world and helping them pave a way for them to have a career. You've got a lot going on. You've got a busy home life. You've got a busy professional life. Why do you choose to give back and participate in these initiatives?

    So my employment work is my work and this stuff is my soul work. I love it. I just love it. It's easy to do because it brings me joy, and I think it's important.

    Morgan: Yeah, absolutely. Like you said, it's the networking externally and internally and empowering other women or being supportive of their practice or providing that guidance.

    You know, as I said earlier, we're recording this as part of our podcast series and some of the other activities that we'll be doing around Women's History Month highlighting women of Waller. So, I do want to discuss a little bit about how being a woman in law has influenced your career. To start, what challenges, if any, as a woman practicing law, have you faced? I think we read a lot about this in legal publications . I'm happy to see that there's more conversation around this and highlighting this and we've had speakers come into the firm. I'd love to hear just, from you, what challenges you have faced, if any?

    Kierstin: Yeah, gender binaries, cultural binaries they still exist and breaking through those is a daily challenge. Waller and other firms can only do so much. We still face it, and I still face it, dealing with things that are outside of Waller's control, like opposing council. Having a male opposing counsel who doesn't respect me or acts differently whenever I'm taking a deposition versus when another man in the case is taking a deposition. Those are the sorts of challenges that are hard. They're hard because they feel personal. For me, it's not personal. It's my job, and I'm just trying to do my job. It can be hard to bring in those challenges to an already challenging profession.

    Morgan: Yeah. I completely agree. It's already challenging to practice law and be in the area of law that you're in, particularly, given the challenges that we've mentioned over the last couple of years, and then to hit those roadblocks that really feel outside of your control. Like you said, particularly when it's involving outside counsel or a judge or someone that we can't really handle here at Waller or navigate those challenges internally. Do you have advice, you know, if you're talking to other women attorneys, on how to navigate those challenges?

    Kierstin: I guess a couple things. One is just holding space for myself to grieve that when that happens as opposed to just running right through it and moving on to the next thing, which is so easy to do. Whenever I'm on the way home after that challenging deposition, just sitting in silence and letting myself be angry.

    That allows me to go back to my values. It isn't personal and I have to operate from the place of my values and not someone else's, and that's what I come back to. One of my values is authenticity. Whenever I'm facing a situation where a counterpart is making me, or wants to make me, feel small, and this is how insidious misogyny can be, I automatically think get small. Be quiet. Maybe these questions are done. Maybe you shouldn't be asking these questions. Why are you taking so long? And fighting that and seeing that as someone else's fear, not my own.

    I think the other thing is talking about it with other women. Just being able to bear witness to other women's issues and hear from them and have those conversations. It feels better. It takes away that thought of I'm going through this alone and this is a me issue, and really it's a collective.

    Morgan: Those are really excellent points and really good advice. I think you're right. To really reflect on it, and like you said , to grieve it. It did happen. What do I do with that and how do I process that situation?

    So, as a firm, I believe we always have more we can be doing as it relates to the hiring and promotion and retention of women. We can always get better. That said, I think we've done a great job in recent years of hiring, particularly at the entry level, for women attorneys. I think the challenge across the industry and something that isn't unique to us is the retention and promotion of women. I think it's complex, but do you have any particular thoughts on what we as a firm or industry can improve particularly in those areas of retention and promotion?

    Kierstin: I do. I think there are big initiatives that are happening that are really important. One of those is the Mansfield certification that's happening here at Waller. Which side note: the Mansfield rule is named after Arabella Mansfield and my daughter's name is Arabella. She was the first female lawyer, which is not her namesake, but it is a beautiful coincidence. I think that these initiatives are really important.

    What I see as an opportunity and maybe something that we can focus on going forward as well, is the little moments. I think professional relationships can learn a lot from personal relationships. If we think about our personal relationships, the little moments matter. The little things show care, kindness, and build loyalty. I think if we could incorporate that into our professional lives it could go a long way in terms of creating stickiness. What I mean by that, is sending emails on Mother's Day wishing our lawyers who are mothers a happy Mother's Day. That takes hardly any time at all, but it means a lot to the person getting that email to be seen and valued for that part of their life, which means so much to them.

    Morgan: It's interesting, you think about the negative connotation of death by a thousand cuts, right? It's these the little things that happen. Usually it's not some significant event that pushes someone away, and I think the flip side of that is those building blocks. The little things that happen over time that build the stickiness, that make people want to stay, they want to build their career somewhere. And it is in those seemingly little moments.

    Someone made a comment to me a couple of weeks ago and they had remembered something that I did for them. I don't even remember doing that. It was just natural for me to do what I did and they had written it down about me involving them in something. Well, that was just a mindless thing that I did, and that's what people ultimately remember. And so if everyone plays a part in that, and everyone has a responsibility to really be thinking about ways that we can build people's careers and retain the talent here. It's a big investment that everyone makes every day.

    Kierstin: I agree. I read a book. Gosh, it must have been seven or so years ago. I think it was a relationship book, I can't remember the name, but it used the analogy of a bank. You may have heard this before. We do certain things and they withdraw money from this proverbial bank and then we do certain things that are deposits. As long as there's more deposits than there are withdraws, you're in the positive and things are good. These bigger deposits take time, and so I think we can't overlook those little deposits along the way to sort of keep us afloat because there are going to be withdrawals. Like you said, death by a thousand cuts. Those little withdraws can bankrupt you. So the little deposits are just as important as the big ones.

    Morgan: I've always loved that analogy.

    So as a working mother have you seen a shift since March of 2020 in your work-life balance? I personally have found on the one hand, there are more challenges than ever before. Whether or not you have kids that are school age, and you're having to manage remote learning, interruptions due to COVID exposures, or actually having an illness in your home. There's so many things where our lives have been changed.

    Then on the other hand, we have more flexibility than ever before to work from home or get your work done whenever, wherever. We're able to invest more time in our families.

    Do you agree with this? Has COVID, or other life events have happened besides COVID in the last two years, that have impacted your work-life balance as a practicing attorney and a working mother.

    Kierstin: Thankfully there's been multiple shifts because at the beginning of the pandemic, I just remember vividly this day where I was crying Googling what is the difference between a triangular prism and a triangular pyramid trying to teach my daughter fourth grade geometry.

    Meanwhile, my phone is ringing off the hook and I'm reading hundreds of pages of new laws that are being introduced. It was such a crazy time. Thankfully we've shifted from there, and I think so many great things have come from the pandemic.

    We've learned that work can be done remotely. And I think that overall that is going to have a positive impact on the workforce. It's going to allow a lot more women and mothers to stay in the workforce, which research shows is positive for business, for the economy, and is not negative whatsoever.

    I think also adding that human aspect. Being able to see opposing counsel with kids in the back of their screen or hearing them on a phone conference call gives you a different perspective of, okay, that's right. I'm dealing with a person here. A whole person with a whole life. I think that has introduced more grace into the practice of law, at least in my experience, which I always think is a beautiful thing.

    Morgan: Absolutely.

    Thinking of yourself as a role model or a mentor. Do you have any advice that you would want to share with young women who are either looking into pursuing a career in legal or maybe it's one of our summer associates that comes through the doors of Waller this summer. Any advice that you have for them?

    Kierstin: I guess the thing that comes to mind there are undoubtedly going to be people along the way who, inadvertently or not, knock you down or you a closed door or something like that. Just believe in yourself. That would be my best advice.

    Morgan: I love it. It seems simple, but I think we oftentimes forget about that. It's easy to get distracted from that.

    On the flip side, Is there a woman that has inspired you? Mentors or those that have provided you guidance along the way. This could be someone you know and love, a celebrity, someone who you admire in the field or someone that you've really directly interacted with that has inspired you, but either in your personal or your professional life.

    Kierstin: Daily. I'm inspired by women daily. So many women come to mind and I just think if I had to pick one, honestly, it would be my wife AC.

    We are such different people. It's interesting how two people can have similar upbringings and come out so differently. For me, when I met her, I was very guarded, very defensive, very a lot of things. Nothing rolled off my back. It rolled off my back and into my pocket where I could pull it out at any time. And anyone who knows my wife, she's just so very the opposite. She is a light. She sees the best in everyone. So happy go lucky and not guarded, very trusting in others.

    So, she's really brought out a little bit more of that in me. I'm still me. I'm still not her, but it's been good. It's been something that's benefited me in my personal life, but also in my professional life. So yeah. Don't tell her I said this.

    Morgan: Okay. We won't let her listen to this.

    Do you have anything else that you want to add for our listeners, particularly as we think about highlighting stories of our people around Women's History Month?

    Kierstin: First I would just say thank you for listening. And then, gosh, women's issues are so important to me and I, and I think others, rightfully sometimes get caught up in fighting the good fight and the battles that we're trying to overcome right now. What I'm doing for myself, and maybe others might want to do the same, is I'm just going to take this month, Women's History Month, to celebrate my womanhood and just celebrate women for a second. Those fights will still be there in April and we can pick them back up, but we all need a timeout. We all need a water break. So , I'm going to take March to do just that. Take a step back and just celebrate myself and celebrate the other beautiful, smart, inspiring women around me.

    Morgan: Absolutely.

    Thank you so much for talking to me today and sharing your story and your advice, Kierstin. I enjoyed it.

    Kierstin: Thank you for having me.

    Thank you for listening to this episode of paths and profiles. For more information, visit Waller law.com/diversity.

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