Alumnae Shine in Top Business, Law, and Policy Roles
By Queen Muse
American University Washington College of Law attracts and fosters students committed to making an impact through law—even when the odds are stacked against them. In addition to instilling persistence, AUWCL teaches students how to be flexible, adjusting to unexpected life changes and new career opportunities as they come.
The four women graduates we spoke to recently are leading attorneys in business, law, and policy, practicing at the top of their fields. Their success did not follow a linear path, nor did they sail to the top without dedication and hard work. These women have forged new paths, and along the way, redefined what it means to be a leader.
ADVOCATING FOR DIVERSITY
Tonya Esposito ’01 | Partner, Seyfarth Shaw LLP
Tonya Esposito ’01 began practicing law at a time when the field was not as diverse or welcoming to women as it is today. Esposito is a partner in the Litigation Department at Seyfarth Shaw LLP in Washington, D.C. When she is not using her experience in antitrust, advertising, and financial services to counsel clients on all things consumer-related, Esposito, chairperson of the Washington office’s diversity committee, works to ensure that her legal teams are representative of society as a whole. Esposito attributes her passion for diversity and inclusion to her time at AUWCL.
“Every six months I try to come up with new strategies to attract and retain, and really include, diverse lawyers in everything that we’re doing here,” she said. “That’s a big mission of mine and something I credit to my law school experience because I think AUWCL fostered the importance of that type of inclusivity in all of its students.”
Esposito says she’s grateful to work for a firm that values diversity and empowers women to step into leadership roles. She now pays the supportive
mentorship she received forward to young lawyers.
“When I first started practicing there were only a handful of women partners. To some extent those women partners felt the need to perform similarly to their male colleagues in both leadership style and professional acumen. That, at times, made it feel less than welcoming,” she said. “As a leader, I like to engage with associates and younger lawyers in a conversational way that’s going to help them feel like they’re truly members of a team. I want them to know that I’m invested in them, and they should be invested in themselves—that we all should be invested in each other.”
FINDING HER VOICE
Sherry Quirk ’82 | President and General Counsel, Tennessee Valley Authority
Sherry Quirk ’82 is executive vice president and general counsel for the Tennessee Valley Authority, the largest public utility in the United States. She works to improve environmental and economic development in the Tennessee Valley for residents in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the country. But she didn’t always think she would have the courage to fight on behalf of millions of people. Often the only woman in a room full of men, early in her career, Quirk struggled to speak up and share her ideas.
“When I began practicing law, the field was very heavily made up of males, and predominantly white males. There were not that many women, especially in the areas I was practicing in, and it was difficult sometimes to be viewed as someone who was as serious as the men,” she recalled. “Early on, when I’d share my ideas, somehow I seemed to be threatening or difficult to them. So, for a long time, I’d figured out a way to introduce an idea and ultimately let someone else get the credit for it.”
One day a mentor pointed this out to her, and Quirk began taking a more confident approach to presenting her ideas and seeing them through on her own.
“I finally got it, that I needed to own my ideas and assert myself and take the risk that they would not necessarily always be agreed to but that they were mine. So I stepped up and I made that adjustment,” Quirk said.
Quirk’s former fear of speaking out now drives her leadership style, through which she aims to empower young lawyers to have courage—a skill that she fostered during her time at AUWCL.
“At AUWCL, I had many opportunities to push my limits,” she said. “My advice to law students today is to always do the thing that frightens you the most because the fact that it frightens you means there’s something there for you to learn. Be willing to be afraid and insecure, and work through it. It’s just like exercise; you’ll only end up getting stronger.”
AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
Loren Ponds ’02 | Member, Miller & Chevalier
Loren Ponds ’02 always knew she wanted to practice tax law, but she never expected to take such a winding road to her current role as a member of Miller & Chevalier in Washington, D.C., the oldest federal tax and government affairs practice in the country.
Shortly after she graduated from AUWCL, Ponds moved to Germany as a German Chancellor Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and worked as a Visiting Attorney at Universität Hamburg’s International Tax Institute. She later went on to work as a Trainee for the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development in Paris, France. None of this, of course, was in Ponds’s original plan for her career, but each experience contributed to her unique skillset—such as being able to speak fluent German and French—and enabled her to stand out.
More importantly, each unexpected opportunity that Ponds pursued led to another and brought her closer to the type of legal work she always dreamed of doing, like her recent role as majority tax counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means, where she developed, analyzed, and refined the international tax provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
“It was so exciting to have the opportunity to help shape international tax policy and to see that policy enacted into law,” Ponds said.
Ultimately, Ponds says, it was self-awareness and a willingness to be open to different ways of achieving her goals that enabled her to have such a rewarding career.
“It’s easy to fall into a mindset that when you graduate, you have to do a particular thing, when really the focus should be on the type of work that you want to do and the impact you want to make,” she explained.
“My going abroad may have seemed counterintuitive to some, but I wound up getting experience that no one else had. It takes courage and also self-awareness to know what you want to do and the best way to go about that for whatever your circumstances are at the time. You have to be willing to take incremental steps toward where you want to be.”
BUILDING A LEGACY
Susan Mann ’86 | Senior Director of IP Policy, Microsoft
Early in her career, Susan Mann ’86 didn’t know which area of law she wanted to pursue. She considered practicing family law, and before coming to AUWCL, found herself working as a regulatory analyst for a trade association in the mining industry. It’s a far leap from her current role as senior director of intellectual property policy for Microsoft, and it’s a role she may have never found her way to had she not taken advantage of some unexpected opportunities after attending AUWCL.
For five years, Mann served as a public policy advocate for the National Music Publishers Association. Through that experience, she developed a deeper expertise in copyright and intellectual property law and policy, which eventually became her career path.
“I entered law school thinking I wanted to be a domestic lawyer and I went in a completely different direction because I was open to things that interested me as a student, and I was open to taking internships and other opportunities,” Mann said. “As I’ve progressed in my career, my greatest success has been in embracing new opportunities to do things that weren’t necessarily what I thought I would do. Every time I’ve embraced a new challenge, it’s at those stretch points that I’ve felt the greatest reward and the greatest opportunity for growth in my career.”
Now, having spent nearly 40 years practicing law in various settings, including 17 years at Microsoft, Mann is eager to use her expertise to lead, mentor, and inspire the next generation of law professionals. Like Quirk, Mann encourages young lawyers to step out of their comfort zone.
“Have a goal, but be open. Have a mindset of being open to growth, challenges, and learning new things,” Mann said. “It’s uncomfortable, but it also tends to lead to the greatest rewards.”
Mann says the support she received from esteemed peers and faculty at AUWCL gave her the extra push she needed to explore new paths. The supportive and nurturing culture that Mann experienced at AUWCL still persists today; she knows because her daughter, Rachel Berlage, who graduated from AUWCL in 2016, tells her so all the time.
“She has certainly heard me tell my stories over the years about AUWCL and about faculty who were impactful on my experience as a student,” she said. “When Rachel has told me her stories, it was wonderful for us to find that some of the faculty members that were the most helpful and most supportive for her were the same faculty members who provided guidance and support for me.”