Q&A: Teveia Barnes, Debra L. Zumwalt Pioneer Award

The commissioner of financial institutions for the State of California discusses her career, mentoring and helping solve others' problems

Read profiles of all the winners here.

Age: 59

Law School: New York University

Favorite woman from history: Margaret Brent

 

Q: How did your career progress after law school?

A: My first job was with Simpson Thacher & Bartlett as an associate, my first legal job. I started in the corporate department and then went to the banking department after a year, and have been doing banking ever since. From Simpson Thacher I went to a small boutique firm that represented only banks, and that was Sage Gray Todd & Sims. And then I left in ’82 and went to Bank of America and was there until 1999. When I was at Bank of America, I started as a senior counsel in the New York office, and was promoted to assistant general counsel to head up the New York office, and then was promoted to associate general counsel and moved to San Francisco to head up the global banking division of Bank of America on the legal side, and did that for a number of years until I left in ’99.

From there, I went to Lawyers for One America and worked with the Clinton White House and Janet Reno and Eric Holder on the One America Initiative, which promotes diversity in the legal profession and promotes attorneys doing more pro bono legal services.

And from there I went to head up the Bar Association of San Francisco, and then I went back and worked on Lawyers for One America as a full-time position as the executive director and general counsel. And from there, I went to Foley & Lardner, where I was a partner. I started as a part-time partner at Foley & Lardner and continued my position with Lawyers for One America, and then became a full-time equity partner at Foley & Lardner and still did my work with Lawyers for One America until I was appointed the commissioner for the California Department of Financial Institutions.

 

Q: Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

A: I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since I was 10 years old. I have always been an advocate for people. Even as a young child, I was the person that people would go to to settle disputes. Whenever there was a fight, they would say “Let’s go ask Teveia.” I’m not quite sure why, but I seemed to know things, and so I was often asked questions. And I saw lawyers as individuals who people went to for answers for their problems and questions. I never thought of being a judge, but I did like helping people to get answers to the problems, issues or transactions that they faced, and to help them through them. I’m very much a win-win type of person; I look forward to when everyone comes out feeling good about the result.

 

Q: What kind of support did you get from superiors?

A: I have been blessed with many mentors. All but one of my mentors have been white men who have been very instrumental in my advancement. I’m not quite sure why that has been the case, but it has very much been the case that they have taken me under their wings and literally guided me and gave me insights that I might not otherwise have. Without that support, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for me to achieve the successes that I have. I believe that in all the opportunities that I’ve been given, I’ve shown that I’m very able and capable of doing the job that’s been given to me, but I also know that there have been people that have given me that opportunity.

 

Q: Who were some of these mentors? What did you learn from them?

A: One of my mentors was Mike Halloran, who was the general counsel at Bank of America when I was there. Another mentor of mine is Drucilla Ramey, who’s now the dean at Golden Gate Law School. She was my female mentor, and I didn’t work for her, but she was definitely a mentor in terms of guiding me through the legal profession in California.

Q: What obstacles have you encountered?

A: I don’t think it’s really obstacles. I don’t think I’ve encountered any obstacles other than the challenges of new work and just learning a new position and getting my hands around it and then doing it. I’ve been pretty fortunate; I wouldn’t say that I’ve had any obstacles to speak of so far in my career. I’ve had opportunities presented, and I haven’t taken them all, but I assess all opportunities that come my way to see if it makes sense for me, and I think I’ve been fortunate to have been given those choices.

It’s interesting because when I think of my career, I don’t think of it as obstacles ever. I think of it as opportunities. I went from law school to a law firm, to another law firm, to an in-house counsel position at a major bank, to a non-profit, to heading up and running as CEO and executive director a non-profit—Lawyers for One America—and working with the White House and the Attorney General’s office, and then another opportunity to head up the Bar Association of San Francisco, and then another opportunity to work at a national law firm, Foley & Lardner, and now, another opportunity to work in government. I see those all as a trajectory in a career that I’m quite blessed to have had. I’ve gotten to see all that there is to offer. You know, I’ve been in private practice and non-profit practice and now in government practice, so I would be hard-pressed to say I’ve had many obstacles. Again, I’ve been quite blessed in my opportunities.

 

Q: How do you manage work-life balance?

A: The best thing that ever happened to me is my husband, Alan Sankin, who is also an attorney and is vice president of taxes and the treasurer at Dolby Laboratories Inc., the sound company. I’m able to have work-life balance because I have an understanding husband who’s also in a very demanding profession as a lawyer. So he understands when I need to work, and when my children were younger, we had very good caretakers who took care of them and who were very loving. And when I was home, I gave a lot of quality time to my kids. I managed it by being fortunate enough to have a support group available for me to make it work.

 

Q: What have you done to help women in their law careers?

A: I serve as a mentor to quite a number of women and work with them on their careers, in terms of both their professional career and their private life, and making sure they have a balance. So I’m there for them. I talk to them, I visit with them and I take their emails and calls very seriously, and I am always very forthcoming to them; I don’t always necessarily tell them what they want to hear.

There are often times when I tell them: “No, I don’t think that there’s another way to do that,” or, “Did you consider this perspective?” and “Maybe when that person said X, they really meant for you to do X, and there’s no hidden agenda,” and “When your boss tells you this project is due on Wednesday, even if he or she doesn’t get back to you until the end of the day Wednesday or early Thursday, that’s their choice. And it’s important for you to understand that and for you to meet their timing or to give them a heads-up if you can’t.”

So I mentor quite a number of women … and I’ve been doing this for years and years.

 

Q: What advice would you give to a young woman lawyer?

A: Listen to your heart. Even the folks who would ask me things, in their heart of hearts, they knew what the right thing was, and they were looking for confirmation. Or they knew what the right thing was, but they didn’t want to do it, and they were trying to see if they could get around it. But if they truly listen to their hearts, they’ll know what’s right to do.

Be true to who you are as a person and only do the things that you are comfortable doing. I say most lawyers live in a very ethical profession, but there are times when a client might ask us to do something that we’re uncomfortable with doing, that I would call crossing the line or going over the edge. And simply don’t do it if you have any qualms about it in terms of whether it is ethically or morally correct. And I always say the test would be: Did your heart skip a beat? Or, how did you feel? Did your heart start to race when you thought about if what you did was in the newspaper and you had to explain it to your family? How would your family view you? Would they view you positively and be proud of you? Or would they be embarrassed and ashamed, and you would have to explain why you were being viewed in a negative light?

So I would say, listen to your heart and be true to yourself.

 

Q: What has been your proudest moment as a lawyer?

A: Getting the Margaret Brent Award. The Margaret Brent Award is, I consider it, the highest honor that a woman attorney can get from the American Bar Association. Margaret Brent was the first woman attorney, and I was given the Margaret Brent Award in 2004. So, just to put it in perspective, after I got the award, Ruth Bader Ginsburg got the award and Hillary Clinton got the award. Before I got the award, Sandra Day O’Connor got the award. So it’s very prestigious, and it’s given to you by your peers. I didn’t even know I was being nominated for the award, and when I got the call that I got it, I truly was speechless. And when I did my acceptance speech, I was practically in tears. I think I did cry during part of it.

 

Q: Are there any other things that you’d like to do to advance the careers of women lawyers?

A: I’m continuing to advance women and their careers, even as the commissioner of financial institutions. I continue to work with women lawyers; I continue to work with women bankers and I also work with people of color and lawyers of color. And so, that’s still very much who I am and what I will always do. That hasn’t stopped.

Join the Conversation

Advertisement. Closing in 15 seconds.