Attorney Julia L. Jenness summed up the secret to her success in three words: “I didn’t quit.”
Jenness takes over Feb. 1 as managing shareholder of Sacramento’s Boutin Jones, the first woman to hold that distinction at the firm. In fact, not many women have held this particular title within the region’s largest law firms. The accomplishment requires more than persistence, however, in a field where power traditionally resides with men.
The 53-year-old Woodland native took the hard-core business-law courses at the University of Oregon Law School. She landed her first job at Downey Brand, in the business-law department; of the 15 to 20 lawyers there, she was the only woman. She chose her mentor, Steven Blake, because he embodied the values and the skills she wanted to learn. When she encountered obstacles, she brainstormed with other young female associates to find ways to clear them. Within seven years of joining Downey Brand, she was named a partner.
As a second-year law student, Jenness said, she wondered why she had met up with so few women in her class, when she’d been told that a third of the students were women.
“One day, I had to deliver a note for a professor, so I went into the family law class,” she said, “and it was 90 percent women, so they actually self-selected out of business, out of transactions, out of real estate. ... This was 1980, and I remember being shocked.”
Her law school experience prepared her, in some respects, for her first assignment as a corporate lawyer at Downey Brand. She wasn’t intimidated, she said, by being the only female attorney in her department because being a first-year attorney is intimidating enough. Blake was there, however, to counsel her on cases, Jenness said, and perhaps equally as important, how to interact with clients.
“I told Steve once that I was really grateful for ... his mentorship,” Jenness said. “And, as only Steve would say, he said, ‘You’ve earned everything you’ve achieved. It’s all you.’ That’s the kind of person he is.”
Unfortunately, not every partner or associate at Downey Brand was as supportive as Blake. She struggled with managing some workplace relationships – and then found as she spoke with other female attorneys that she wasn’t the only person trying to overcome obstacles at the firm. The women, who all started practicing within a year or two of each other, organically started having dinners together once a quarter.
“We’d just go around the table and talk about a challenge we had to deal with,” Jenness said. “We’d all talk about different ways to solve it, and we really focused on solving the problem, not just complaining about the problem. These were very educated, pragmatic women, and that group really worked well.”
Jenness practiced at Downey Brand for 20 years. In her first year as partner, she was given responsibility for hiring. She eventually became chair of the firm’s business department, the first woman to hold the position. When Jenness left to become a senior partner at Boutin Jones, she said, she didn’t have to go far. Boutin Jones was just a few floors up from Downey Brand in the same building, 555 Capitol Mall.
“I put down roots in this region, and I stayed,” said Jenness, part of her family’s fifth generation to live in Yolo County. “We’re only 12 miles from the city where I grew up.”
Jenness started out as a corporate attorney, but she has focused on employment law for the last 25 years because the field just exploded. Every year, she said, there have been new federal government regulations that affect the relationship between employer and employee. It’s a field that required her to be on her toes every day, she said. Clients have called for advice when the Department of Labor or Immigrations and Customs Enforcement have shown up to do audits, for instance. Occasionally, sheriff’s deputies arrived to arrest her client’s employees.
“I like to solve problems. I like working with clients to find a solution that works for them,” she said. “The phone rings, and you don’t know what it is on the other end.”
Jenness is not a litigator, however. She advises her clients on compliance to help keep them out of trouble.
When she takes the reins as managing shareholder, Jenness essentially will serve as chairwoman of the board at Boutin Jones, setting strategic direction for the firm. It’s an office she’ll hold for two years. She succeeds partner Robert Swanson in the office. During his stint as the firm’s leader, the number of attorneys has swelled from 32 to 45.
Despite her success, Jenness doesn’t hold herself up as a role model for women in the legal field.
“One of the reasons that I have been as successful as I have been is that I never married and I didn’t have children,” she said. “It was easy for me to devote the time to my practice. What will really be nice is when a woman is elected to managing shareholder, it’s not newsworthy, she’s married and she has children. That is where we need to be as a profession.”