Women's Leadership InitiativeQ&A with Kathleen Trafford

Kathleen concentrates her practice in the area of governmental and regulatory litigation, business disputes and constitutional law. 

Describe a pivotal moment that influenced your career path.

I am a late-bloomed lawyer. I have a master’s degree in regional planning. My first career was with the four county regional planning commission anchored by Akron, Ohio. One of my tasks was to meet with local officials in the surrounding townships and villages to advocate the merits of federally-encouraged regional planning, particularly in connection with housing diversification and affordability. I did not always get a warm reception. Ohio is a strong local control state and the township lawyer or village solicitor would advise against joining in the regional planning process, making arguments I thought were plainly wrong. My sense was the local officials were discounting my pitch and crediting his because I was not a lawyer. Easy fix, right. I started night law school with the expectation that a law degree would make me more credible in my chosen career. But those early classes, especially contracts, constitutional law and federal courts, opened a new door through which I eagerly walked.

What advice would you give to women just starting out at a law firm?

Be enthusiastic about your work. Every assignment is a new opportunity to learn, to become a better lawyer and to earn the respect and trust of your colleagues. Be visible in the office. In-person interaction is far superior to an email or a phone call with other members of your team. It results in dialogue. It unearths new issues. It improves the outcome and it avoids mistakes by omission. And you get more steps on your fit-bit every time you get up from your desk. Be thorough in your research and analysis. Don’t cite a case if you have not actually read it – all the way through. And think critically as you read cases. A case may be wrongly decided, easily distinguishable or implicitly overtaken by later or better authority. Write clearly, accurately and timely. Never turn in a work product that you don’t think is the best you can do. Be limitless – welcome new challenges, even when they are out of your comfort zone.

What are some important first steps they can take to lay the groundwork for a successful career?

A young lawyer benefits from exposure to different practice areas. The demand for legal services ebbs and flows over time and those who have multiple areas of competence and strengths will be more adaptive. I cannot overstate the value of mentoring but, for it to be successful, both the mentor and mentee have to shoulder the initiative. No one will fault you for asking too many questions or seeking more opportunities. Also, get involved in the profession, not just to network, but to find ways to live this profession and give back. It isn’t just a job.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

I was lucky early on. I attended a small, all-women liberal arts college. We never thought that there were things we could not do. We held all the leadership positions. We picked and populated all the extracurricular activities. We spoke our minds in class and challenged our professors. It was expected that we would do something important and worthwhile with our education. I was lucky again when I came to Porter Wright. One senior partner insisted that I get involved in the bar and in the community. He said the privilege of practicing law comes with the obligation to better our profession and community. When I later told him, I was going to run for the Columbus Bar Association board, he told me he would not vote for me unless I promised to become CBA president someday. And I am lucky every day to have a wonderful, supportive husband and partner who encourages me to welcome new challenges, even when they are out of my comfort zone.

If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would he/she be and why?

Ellen Goodman, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and columnist. I have been an avid fan of her books and columns for years. Her observations about society, politics, gender and life are always pleasantly provocative. A favorite: “How come pleasure never makes it on to... a dutiful list of do's and don'ts? Doesn't joy also get soft and flabby if you neglect to exercise it?” Or, “Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, car and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it.” She retired in 2010. I would love to hear what she has to say about the last six years.