Barbara Stettner isn't exactly your
usual attorney. She'll say it herself.
"I dropped out of high school at 16 years old," Stettner recalls. "While my parents instilled a strong work ethic in us, our family life was not conducive to learning and didn't really inspire success," says Stettner. "My sole focus at the time was to move out of the house and get a job--which I did." She took her GED while bagging groceries, waitressing, and working as an emergency room animal health technician to keep afloat.
As it turns out, an agent of change in her life was a horse ranch in the northern California foothills. Having a deep affinity for animals, Stettner spent much of her early childhood hanging around the ranch where she cleaned stalls and groomed and exercised horses in exchange for lessons. She became an instructor at the age of 13 and a junior grand champion level rider at the age of 14. There, she became an expert on not only horses, but also hard work.
Her real "epiphany" came one day while bagging groceries. "I looked around and realized that this was it for me unless I did something about it--it was one of those moments you never forget," Stettner recalls. She quickly enrolled in junior college and 2 years later headed off to the University of California at Davis intending to be a veterinarian. A few years later though, she emerged from Pepperdine's JD/MBA program instead... raring to work in the financial markets: a vision she caught while on a Pepperdine/MBA trip to China.
"On that [MBA] trip, Graziadio professor Wayne Gertmenian proved to be a pivotal influence for me," she said. On that journey in the early '90s Stettner saw the destructive effects communism had wrought on a country's culture and economy and she decided then and there that her life's work would be in the domestic and international financial markets.
A self-described "Reagan republican" Stettner pursued the financial side of law with a vengeance. With her Pepperdine degrees still hot off the press she headed for the London School of Economics to get her L.LM in international finance, all the while making it her goal to eventually land in the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
Now in 2007, as one of only approximately 35 women partners in the prestigious firm of O'Melveny & Myers LLP, in Washington, D.C., her dream job at the SEC is two positions in the past and she's nowhere near done. Stettner and her colleagues are developing a collaborative-styled practice which she claims is "the future of the practice of law."
Their team is a Securities Enforcement and Regulatory Counseling Practice team, which focuses on advising and defending U.S. and foreign financial institutions involved in securities transactions including investment banks, brokerages, investment advisers, banks, insurance companies and hedge funds. The how-to of the team's unique approach encourages them to "use business skills to build a dedicated legal team, and to approach their clients' problems in an integrated manner and from the perspective of the client." Stettner comments, "It's a successful approach, but it's contrary--in many ways--to the individualistic way law is taught."
But why would Stettner, who independently fought off failure at so many stops, be so into teamwork? The answer to the question goes back to the horse corral and the classroom.
"I'm a strong believer in mentorship," Stettner asserts. As a recipient of much mentoring herself, she always encourages students to take advantage of the experience of those who have gone before. In Stettner's case, the mentorship of business professor Wayne Gertmenian (who led the MBA China trip), and law professor Janet Kerr (who recognized Stettner's potential and encouraged her to work hard through discouragement) gave her the mental assistance, as well as the practical referrals she needed to get going. At the SEC, Chief Counsel Caite McGuire and Deputy Chief Counsel Paula Jenson of the division of market regulation, and former assistant director of the Office of International Affairs and former Kirkland & Ellis partner, Robert Strahota, were among a few who "took me in hand and taught me how to be a skillful lawyer," recalls Stettner. "I am fortunate to continue to have strong mentors, not the least of whom is Bill Satchell (a banking and transactional partner at O'Melveny), who has not only taught me how to think through complex legal matters facing financial institutions, but also how to build this practice and become a better manager of it."
Her relationship with Professor Kerr is one that Stettner still values and tries to emulate with other Pepperdine law grads showing dedication and potential. In fact, Stettner commonly assists recent graduates with attaining positions in the SEC and at her firm. But she'll tell you honestly that she's only interested in mentoring those who are willing to listen and to work hard.
"We work in the client-services business," says Stettner who is quick to tell aspiring attorneys, emphasizing that lawyering is not supposed to be a cushy job. "A starting salary of $160,000 and a corresponding billable rate to clients of $300 per hour means you need to roll up your sleeves and work hard. You don't become a good lawyer overnight. This is a day-by-day, brick-by-brick process that lasts your entire career. You are not entitled to that salary. You must work for it and prove your value in this legal marketplace."
Stettner's elbow-grease continues even when she's not paid for it. She finds her pro-bono niche in offering "technical assistance" to the Financial Service Volunteer Corps (FSVC), a not-for-profit, private-public partnership whose mission is to help build sound banking and financial systems in emerging markets and developing countries. Through the FSVC she travels the world, helping countries in need take steps to develop their financial markets and related legal systems.
Also, at the invitation of Dean Starr, Stettner now serves on the Board of Visitors for the law school--hoping to contribute to the developing mentorship program recently started by CDO and the office of alumni affairs.
While she doesn't get much time on horseback these days, Stettner finds her relaxation in being a true renaissance woman and planning, sort of, for her retirement. By taking long-distance courses from her undergraduate alma mater UC Davis in the methodologies of wine-making, she is thinking ahead to her far-off plan of settling down on a Sonoma vineyard with her husband Michael to reflect on things.
How far-off is that? "Oh, it will be a while" she says. "I still have a lot to do as a lawyer."
by Lyric Hassler