From the President: Dan McCune Interviews Emma Garrison
Dear Fellow Bar Members,
In this fireside chat, I introduce a member of the Denver Bar Association who, like many attorneys, was a recent law school graduate without a job. Through her eyes, you will learn the importance of getting involved and how she was able to use her Bar membership to network and ultimately land a job as a practicing attorney. Please join me now as I interview Emma Garrison:
Interview of Emma Garrison
Dan: Tell us a little bit first about your background. Where did you grow up?
Emma: I grew up in Austin, Texas. I stayed there for undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin. I studied liberal arts, Latin and Greek, and after that I moved to California and got my law degree from UC Berkeley in 2004.
I initially moved back to Texas for a year to clerk for a federal district court judge. From there I got a two-year fellowship in Washington, D.C. doing public interest environmental work.
After I finished that, I had an interview at EPA headquarters. I never heard back from them, but then one day I got a call from a 303 area code number. It was EPA’s regional office in Denver saying that EPA headquarters had forwarded them my résumé and they were interested in starting an Honors Fellowship Program for their regional office. They asked if I would I be interested in taking a paying position.
Even though I had never been to Denver and I didn’t know a soul here, I decided to take the plunge and moved.
Dan: And then how long did you do that?
Emma: It was initially an 18-month position that got extended a bit so it was probably around 20. I finished that position in October of 2009, which was a pretty bad time to be looking for new work.
Dan: In 2009, you were back on the street looking for employment? How tough was that?
Emma: It was very tough. Part of it was definitely the economy. But also part of it was finding a permanent, lateral position. All the jobs I’d had previously were entry-level, temporary positions that I’d landed by simply sending in my résumé and cover letter.
Once you get into these more lateral positions, I don’t think that works as well. Eventually, I felt like I was just sending my résumé into a black hole. At one point I just kind of woke up and said, you know, I don’t think this is going to work. I think I need to start meeting people.
And it just so happened that the Chair of the Environmental Section of the CBA worked at EPA. So, I started going to these environmental CLE luncheons and my friend, the Chair, would introduce me to people. From there, I started asking people if they wanted to meet for coffee.
In this string of coffee dates, I ended up meeting Becky Bye who was at the time the incoming Chair of the CBA Young Lawyer Division. And that’s how I first got involved with the Young Lawyers Division.
Dan: Was it just happenstance that you started becoming involved in the Bar Association or was there some conscious thought that you were trying to network to find work by getting involved?
Emma: Finding a job was absolutely my motivation. Prior to that, when I worked in Texas and D.C., I didn’t really understand the Bar Association. I thought, I’m already paying all this money just to be a practicing member of the Bar, so why would I pay more just to go to these events where people are going to schmooze and hand out business cards? So I always avoided it. But as I started meeting nice, helpful people who were active in the bar association, I thought maybe I should rethink this.
Dan: Were you a member of the Bar Association during the time you were unemployed and looking for work?
Emma: I was. I felt that it was worth the investment. It must have been 2009 that I officially joined CBA and DBA.
Dan: How long were you looking for work after you left the EPA?
Emma: It was about a year—a very rough year. I wasn’t licensed in Colorado, so I took some time to study for the February Bar in 2010 and passed. I picked up contract work here and there. I did some document review. I did research and writing projects for various attorneys, as well as volunteer work.
Dan: And then you landed a position when?
Emma: In September of 2010, I got a long-term contract position that eventually turned into an associate position at a mid-size litigation firm here in Denver.
In March of this year they announced that they were dissolving. I remember comparing this to how I felt the last time I knew I was going to be in the job market. The main difference I felt was that I wasn’t alone this time.
I spent all of this time getting involved in the Bar Association. I met so many people. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to find a new job, but I had this entire network of people I could rely on for advice. It was just night and day compared to how I felt in 2009.
Dan: Are you currently working?
Emma: I am. I recently started a position as staff counsel at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, where I do legal research and write briefs, which is actually what I like most about practicing law. So the position is a great fit.
Dan: And do you believe that your contacts and your involvement in the Bar Association assisted in any way in helping you find your new position?
Emma: The short answer is, absolutely. The long answer, it’s a little bit more complicated. It wasn’t that I happened to be at a Bar Association event and I schmoozed and walked out with a job, but rather that I had a much better understanding of the Colorado legal community and what was out there. And from the practice I had networking the last time around, I was able to get in touch with a few people who knew what WTO was all about and talked to them before I applied.
And after I interviewed and they were checking my references, I happened to run into then CBA President Mark Fogg, who put in a good word for me. I don’t think that was make or break, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
Dan: How did you know Mark Fogg?
Emma: I got to know Mark Fogg through the Young Lawyers Division at our annual retreat last year when he gave a meet-the-president talk. He was very invested in the Young Lawyers Division.
One of his first messages from the President in The Colorado Lawyer was about the YLD and he asked us all to send in our stories about how we got involved. I sent him my story.
Dan: Did you have contact with him after that?
Emma: Yeah, I had seen him at other events. I have been to Board of Governor meetings, and talked to him there.
Dan: Let’s talk about just showing up. From what you’ve told me, my impression is that you’ve done more in the Bar Associations than just show up. Tell our readers a little bit about what you did to get involved and what benefit you feel you’ve received from that involvement.
Emma: Sure. Like anything else, I started out by just showing up. One of the first official Young Lawyers Division events I went to was a movie night at CU Boulder, where we got an hour of free CLE, and then ate pizza and watched a law-related movie. From there I went to a handful of other networking events and CLEs.
And then I happened to see a notice that they were looking for new members for the Executive Council of the CBA Young Lawyers Division. I thought maybe I should throw my hat in the ring. The main thing that motivated me was the experiences I’d had job searching. That had been really tough for me and it was a light of hope to find this community that could help, even if they were just there for support. It had been really great and I wanted to give back.
There are plenty of other people who were in my same situation and I want to help create that community for them, too.
Dan: Did you get on the executive council?
Emma: I did, and I’ve stayed involved. I am now Chair of the CBA Young Lawyers Division.
Dan: Tell the readers how you came to meet me and end up being interviewed as an example of why involvement in the Bar Association is important to a lawyer’s practice and professional development.
Emma: I started out as Chair-Elect the year before becoming Chair. It’s a two-year grooming process. Traditionally the CBA sends the YLD Chair-Elect to the ABA Bar Leadership Institute in Chicago. And so I got to go, along with the incoming CBA president, the incoming DBA president and leaders from Arapahoe and Boulder County. I remember between one of the conference sessions I was sitting next to you, Dan, and you just asked, why did you get involved with the Bar Association?
Dan: If you could give any parting advice to law students who are going to be facing the challenge of finding work and starting down the path in their new profession, what would tell them?
Emma: The first thing I would say is advice given to me from my mom: when you’re looking for a job or anything else, you have to take the long view. It’s very easy to get frustrated. You’re going to feel like you’re doing all these things and not getting anywhere. But you have to trust that things will eventually work out.
Another related piece of advice I’ve taken to heart is the advice Conan O’Brien gave in the final episode of his stint on the "Tonight Show." He addressed young people in particular and warned against being cynical. He reminded everyone that no one gets exactly what they thought they would get, but if you work really hard and are kind, amazing things will happen.
And you should definitely get involved. I think I was out of law school five years before I realized it was important to get involved with the Bar Association.
So, don’t make the same mistake I did. Get involved as soon as possible. And as you get involved, remember to take the long view—it will pay off tenfold down the road.
I was one of the shyest people in my law school class. I never raised my hand. Not many people knew me, and now I’m Chair of the CBA Young Lawyers Division and being interviewed for a publication that lawyers all over Denver are going to read. I never would have imagined that—so it really can make a difference.
Dan: So are we going to see you as president of the DBA or CBA some day?
Emma: Haha, who knows. Only time will tell. D
Daniel R. McCune
President, Denver Bar Association