Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Attorney Maria Z. Vathis always knew that she wanted to help others while pursuing her interests in writing and public speaking. To accomplish her goals, she decided to go to law school, having made up her mind early in her collegiate career. But, what she didn’t expect was that she would one day be leading the Federal Bar Association in their journey of becoming a more attorney-friendly institution.

Come September 15, 2018, Maria Z. Vathis of Chicago’s Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP will be installed as President of the Federal Bar Association (“FBA”) during their annual meeting and convention in New York City.

What was most exciting about this was having the opportunity as a young, millennial attorney to speak with the soon to be FBA President. Vathis has been a member of the FBA since the beginning of her legal career, having served as the Chicago Chapter President in 2011.

Maria has a diverse practice which concentrates on commercial litigation and class action defense. She handles litigation nationwide in both federal and state courts and represents fashion and retail clients from the United States and Europe. Maria has appeared on The Opening Bell on WGN Radio and Sirott and Murciano on WLSAM. She has also been featured in Buzzfeed, GenHERation, and NCR Silver.

While Vathis and I differ in years of legal experience, we do have one thing in common—our passion for writing. Having only been licensed to practice law for two and a half years, it was with great honor and privilege that I was able to speak with the FBA President-elect, as well as pick her brain on tips for my generation of legal practitioners.

Utilizing the Federal Bar Association

AR: How did your journey begin with the Federal Bar Association (“FBA”)?

MV: I got started with the FBA early on once I started working. A colleague of mine was a senior associate and I was a junior associate working for a partner. She was heavily involved in the local Chicago chapter of the FBA, and she told me the Board was interested in trying to bring in some younger members. She said there was a seat available and encouraged me to join, which I did. It was a great thing for me. I was very pleased with that decision.

AR: In your opinion, why is the FBA a valuable tool to law students and new attorneys in the field?

MV: I think young lawyers need to understand that people want to be there to help them, whether it’s in the form of mentorship, sponsorship, friendship. 

“I think it’s really something that people should be aware of, and not just thinking, “here I am in this new profession, and I’m completely on my own.” It doesn’t have to be that way.” – Maria Vathis

      What’s On The Agenda?

As Vathis prepares to be installed this month, I wanted to know what items are on her agenda as she begins a new era for the FBA.

#1 –The Rising Lawyer’s Symposium

MV: We’ve been very active in community outreach and a civics initiative over the last few years. Our newest program, The Rising Lawyers Symposium, is available for young lawyers, and was held last year in Las Vegas. We will be hosting this event again, most likely in Las Vegas around February. Here, the importance lies in trying to continue building the support for the younger lawyers in our organization.

“We think it’s really important to have these resources out there. Most of the speakers last year were young lawyers themselves, so it’s a platform to provide young lawyers with the opportunity to get some of that experience.”

Vathis also mentioned that mentorship was a big advantage to the Symposium, because it’s a conference for people of all ages. “It’s just as important for the mentors to attend, as it is for the mentees to attend,” explained Vathis. “I think it’s a great networking opportunity.”

#2 –Awareness on Work-Life Balance

Second on Vathis’ agenda is spreading awareness on maintaining a work-life balance. The importance of making healthy choices, time for fitness, things like that.

#3 –Empowering Female Attorneys

MV: Throughout the duration of my term, I really want to emphasize empowerment when it comes to female attorneys. Once I take the Presidency, I will be the 13th female president in almost 100 years of the FBA. At the same time, I will be one of the three youngest FBA presidents to serve in the history of the organization. This is significant because I want to know what professional women, particularly, female attorneys, want to hear. I want to make sure we have resources for them.

Operating as a non-partisan organization, the FBA is focused on ensuring that any changes it supports will be positive for the community at large.

Challenges Facing New Attorneys In
The Legal Field

#1 –What You’ve Learned In Law School In Not The Same As Real World Practice of Law

AR: What is the biggest challenge you see new attorneys facing as they join the legal profession?

MV: It’s the same as it has been for years—making the transition from being in school to now actually practicing law. A lot of times what you’ve learned in law school is not exactly what you need to know on the job.

“You’re still in that learning period when you first start your job. That can be a bit of a surprise for some people, because you don’t know what path you’re going to take. As you know, law school teaches you how to think, but you actually learn your job once you start practicing.”

#2 –Technology Makes Communication Simpler…Or Does It?

AR: Does technology make it easier and more difficult at the same time?

MV: I would agree with that. I think there are more resources out there to provide some guidance or if you want to find an organization that fits your interest, I feel it’s easier to do that now with social media. But, the problem is that we all spend more time on social media than we should. I think it’s a balance, and sometimes that’s hard to find.

Vathis and I recently were on Legal Talk Network’s Lawyer 2 Lawyer program, talking about how to address the very serious issue of cyberbullying.

Speaking Out to Millennial Law Students and Young Attorneys

#1 –Focusing On Your Health and Wellness

MV: In general, I think it’s important to know that it is really a great profession to be a part of, and we do have the ability to help people, and give back to the community.

I think it’s important to know, that yes, you will work hard in this profession, but the thing is, you also need to focus on your own self-care. No one is going to do that for you, so it’s important to keep that in mind as you are working hard and as you’re building your career.

#2 –The Path Is Infinite, So Don’t Limit Yourself

If you’ve ever been told by a family member or friend that “you didn’t go to law school for three years to do ‘XYZ’”, put that out of your minds. While it’s important to recognize that the people who are saying this are looking out for you, do not be weighed down by the traditional and narrow-minded approach of what a “lawyer” should be doing in the 21st century. The world of technology and social media has changed the way in which people conduct business and utilize their skills.

In talking about how Vathis and I both utilized law school to travel down our own paths, we both agreed that our stories have proven one fact about the profession—there isn’t just one path, you can do so many different things with your degree and license.

For example, not only do I practice criminal defense and internet law, but I also have utilized my degree to weigh in and cover legal issues facing millennials as it pertains to the practice of law as well as utilizing entrepreneurial skills when investing in digital monies and technologies.

AR: Have you come across similar views in your time as an attorney?

MV: Yes, I have definitely come across these views, and it’s important to recognize that the people who are giving you their two cents, it is coming from a good place. The world is changing, and you have to figure that the people who are giving you the advice on whether or not something is the best idea, are just looking out for you.

“But, sometimes taking the path that isn’t well traveled, leads you to the success you want, and the contentment as well. I think it’s worth the risk, because you can always practice, and you can always open up your own firm. It’s not like you’ve closed off other options, but simply trying something new.”

MV: I believe your example is very important for people to be aware of. There isn’t just one path when you have a law degree. You can do so many different things with it, and I hope that the younger generation is aware of that, because I think things are changing, because the world is becoming smaller with social media. I think it’s important for people to know that if you have a passion or a goal, you should go for it, and not be limited to the traditional way of the seven-year partner track and that’s it. There’s just so many things you can do.

#3 –Utilize Your Local State Bar Association

MV: I think you are going to find different types of mentors throughout your path in this career. But, it’s really important as a law student to know that people want to help you. It’s a great time to reach out to people already practicing and any questions you have, you should feel comfortable reaching out to attorneys, especially if you’re part of the bar association, because you have something in common, and it’s easier to reach out. I think being part of a group like that gives you an additional resource that will help you succeed.