Women Mentoring Women: A Q&A with Bianca Pinnock and Honorable Cynthia Callahan, Maryland Circuit Court, Retired Judge

Q: Bianca, tell us about Judge Callahan and how her mentorship has impacted you.

A: Bianca: Judge Callahan is a wealth of knowledge. She is actually blow-your-mind-brilliant. She is so smart, but also maternal with me, which makes her someone whose advice is invaluable to me. I think of her as my real life Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Q: Can you point to some unexpected lessons you learned from her?

A: Bianca: She taught me to look outside the box. Family law attorneys and judges do hard work that has lasting impacts on people's lives; we have to get it right, and sometimes the answer does not directly lie within the letter of the law – but is more nuanced – and in the gray areas. We have to get creative sometimes to find the right solution.

Judge Callahan also taught me to trust myself – because if a super-smart, well-respected, trailblazer like Judge Callahan can trust me to do some of the hardest work there is, there isn't any reason that I shouldn't trust myself, too.

Q: Judge Callahan, it sounds like you've imparted some great life lesson and career guidance to Bianca...what challenges have you overcome – and how?

A: Judge Callahan: I went to law school during the first wave of classes where enrollment of men and women was nearly equal. Even so, when I graduated, the profession was still dominated by men – especially in decision making roles like firm partners and judges. There were many moments when I was treated differently – sometimes dismissively and without respect. I was pretty good at getting along with men and not taking too much grief...but my approach was simple...I made sure to outperform my male colleagues, usually by working longer hours.

Once I began my family law career, I was fortunate to work for two male partners who were very supportive of me. That said, I still worked very long hours to ensure that I was valued by the firm – and when I decided to have a family, the partners were very supportive of my taking maternity leave at a time when most employers did not recognize that type of leave. Taking the leave did not hurt my career or my track to partner.

I recognized, however, that getting that kind of leave was unusual, and so I committed myself to seeing that my "special" treatment was not unique. When I got to be a partner, and was the only female partner, I made sure that we hired more women and that those women understood that they, too, would not pay a price for having and raising children, if they chose to continue their career in the law.

As time went on, the profession slowly changed as more women came into positions of influence. It is heartening to now see not just one, but multiple female partners in a law firm – and even all women firms — and to see women as bar leaders, managing partners and in other leadership roles.

Q: Can you provide examples of how you have helped younger attorneys navigate the complexities of the legal profession and personal challenges?

A: Judge Callahan: In my private practice, I helped recruit a number of women to do family law. This is a very hard practice and it is not for everyone. I always took time to get to know our associates, and because I was the only female partner, the women often sought my advice and guidance. With some of these young lawyers, it was clear to me that they had real talent and were destined to be good lawyers, but perhaps not in the private practice. Rather than just encourage them to leave the firm, I helped them to find a way to use their talents in other areas of the profession.

After I became a judge, I had wonderful law clerks who were just starting out in their careers. I got to know my clerks very well since we worked so closely together. I had the pleasure of seeing these young lawyers, most of them women, grow and learn. We had time to discuss their ambitions, what they liked about the law, what they didn't like or want. I hope that I was able to give each of them some perspective on what it was like to be in private practice and how it was possible to dedicate one's life to the law while also raising a family, and having a spouse.

I tried to impart that if one wants to be a successful lawyer, there is simply no substitute for hard work. But there are equally important qualities that are essential for success – empathy for litigants, understanding your opponent and his/her client, guiding your client gently but firmly to the proper goal, being true to oneself and one's own values, conducting oneself with humility and having a sense of humor!

Q: What advice do you offer to women as they become leaders in their firm or on the bench?

A: Judge Callahan: For those who are becoming leaders, it is important to understand that it took many pioneers to get us to where we are now and that it is imperative that they pass on that knowledge to the next generation. The position of women in this profession cannot be taken for granted; it must be nurtured and encouraged.

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