On March 18, the Cornell Women's Law Coalition held its 2016 Career Day Conference. More than twenty distinguished alumnae attended the event, which featured panels on law firms, business and in-house lawyering, public interest, and government. The keynote lecture was delivered by Annette Hayes '91, the United States Attorney for the Western District of Washington.
Hayes emphasized the importance of trying "every possible flavor of law." "There are lots of accidents along the way as you become a lawyer," she said. "Things that you don't intend, things that you don't expect, things that you don't recognize, are incredibly important in who you end up becoming." As an example, she noted that she took a class on Indian law at Cornell, even though she doubted she would ever use the information; two decades later, as a United States Attorney responsible for a district that is home to twenty-five indigenous tribes, she has found that foundation incredibly useful.
She praised the value of "indirect paths" as she discussed her journey to law school, which included an undergraduate degree in art history and two years as a high school teacher, an experience that she said avails her every time she appears in court. She urged her audience, "Look for all the opportunities."
Hayes also recalled a pivotal moment during her first year at Cornell Law, when she attended a moot court competition presided over by the Hon. Betty Binns Fletcher. "All of a sudden I heard this voice, this tiny, small, quiet, very female voice, and it was nothing like what I ever imagined a judge could be. And so suddenly there was this recognition that, as a woman, you can be different and yet you can still be powerful and you can still have an incredible influence." Hayes' law school experience also included a year of study in Germany and a clerkship with the Environmental Defense Fund. "What a door-opener Cornell is," she observed.
Hayes talked about her path to the office of the United States Attorney for the Western District of Washington, which she joined in 1997 after working in one large firm in Seattle and another in Washington, D.C. Her initial plan, she said, was to gain trial experience for three to five years and then return to her firm. After her first case with the office, however, she was hooked by the experience of doing work that was grounded in her own community and that made a difference. Nineteen years later, she's still there. "What I feel in every seam of my body," she said. "[is that it's an] incredible privilege, and a gift really, to be able to do public service as a lawyer."
Hayes concluded her lecture by discussing some of the current projects before the office, including the trial of an elected state official, the case of a small-town school shooting, and a civil-rights investigation of the Seattle Police Department. She said her office also shares in the nationwide challenge to address systemic prejudice in the criminal justice system.