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« The Changing Workplace - Are Law Firms Ready? | Main | Career Change Advice for Lawyers from the Experts »

Interview: Taina Bien-Aime: From Wall Street Lawyer to Advocate for Women's Rights

Benaime Taina Bien-Aimé's story is the inspiring one of a lawyer who traded a prestigious job as Director of Business Affairs at HBO to become General Counsel and then Executive Director of Equality Now, a non profit agency fighting for women’s rights around the globe.

Bien-Aime's career change provided her with a platform to become a prominent, articulate, and passionate spokeswoman for women's rights, mobilizing governments to take action, and publicizing issues she personally and professionally cares about deeply.

For lawyers who feel stuck in their career, Bien-Aime is encouraging: "Follow your passion," she says.

We invite you to read our full interview with Bien-Aime below courtesy of Celia Paul Associates.

Q: What are you doing now?

A: I am the Executive Director of Equality Now, an international human rights organization that works to end violence and discrimination against women and girls. I’ve been here for 6 years. I came in as General Counsel, and then after a year was elected to Executive Director.

Q: How did you get into this area?

A: When I was working for a major [New York] corporate law firm, I met one of my colleagues who had just come from Amnesty International. She had gone to Amnesty straight from law school, and stayed there for a number of years; she reverse transferred and went into a law firm.
At the time she wanted to start an organization that dealt with issues of ‘women’s rights as human rights’ at a time when mainstream human rights organizations did not consider violence against women (rape, domestic violence, honor killings) as human rights violations because they were deemed ‘cultural,’ private or steeped in religion. But, in fact, just because it happens in the home or in the community doesn’t mean it’s not a human rights violation according to international law. Governments have an affirmative obligation to protect all of its citizens.  And so, Equality Now puts pressure on governments through public mobilization to change, amend or enact laws.

Q: So you’re interacting primarily with government organizations?

A: We work with grassroots organizations around the world. We highlight the case of an individual woman or girl subject to a human rights abuse that is systemic and severe, and recommend an action for our membership base. We then send an alert to our membership base and ask them to write to the person responsible for reform (it could be the President of a country, a Minister of Justice, or the Department of Defense) to look at the situation and to change the law. And then we use media to raise awareness about the issue; people read about these atrocities and don’t really know what to do, so we try to give them an action point. They can just pick up the phone, call their representative, send a fax, or write a letter. You don’t have to dedicate your life to human rights in order to have an impact on the lives of women. 

Q: When you first started at Equality Now, you mentioned you were still maintaining your full-time corporate job?

A: I was a Board member while I was still in the corporate world -- at a law firm and [then] at HBO as Director of Business Affairs. I came on full-time as General Counsel and then full-time as Executive Director of Equality Now.

Q: What kind of skills do you think helped you with this transition?

A: I think having training at a Wall Street law firm was really important. It’s like boot camp and once you survive that, you feel like you can survive almost any kind of work environment -- emotionally, physically and also from a skills-based point of view. For me what was important as a skills-based experience was learning how the world works -- how money and power operate. And I think the law firm really gave me that opportunity to demystify the whole concept of what is power, and what are the epicenters of national and international financial and administrative structures.

Q: At the time of your transition, were there any key individuals who were instrumental in helping you?

A: I can’t really say I’ve had mentors, which is a really huge gap. I’m African-American and I do think that many of us don’t have that opportunity.  I think women in general don’t have that opportunity to have mentors either.  I could see how the guys would easily hook into some relationship of mentoring with Partners or other Senior Associates -- and I felt that both as a woman, and as a woman of color, it was a lot more difficult. So I think my inspiration really came from my peers.  I’ve always been committed to my community and I’ve always been interested in doing pro bono work. So, this was really an extension of what called me and has always called me.

Q: At what point did you come to Celia Paul Associates for career counseling?

A: When I was at my first firm and I was ready for a move, but didn’t quite know where to go or what to do.

Q: How do you think the career counseling process aided in this transition that you made?

A: I think it gave me a lot of hope. I think what happens is when you are in a law firm or in a corporate environment a lot of people feel really stuck -- that there is no life after this law firm and that they will never find another job.  Then there are the financial considerations as well. But I think that the support Celia gave me was “there is life beyond the law firms and you just need to learn how to network and talk to other people”. I think that was really the most important advice I got. Encouragement as well. There would be a list of people I would have to go see, and make sure that I ask that person for the names of five other people -- so I could really broaden my network.

Q: Is there anything else that you feel would be beneficial for others to know about regarding your career transition?

A: I would say for people who feel stuck that it’s really important for them to know that so many other people have followed the path of an alternative career, and that there is life beyond the law firm! If you can, follow your passion. You don’t have to practice law for the rest of your life, but the skills that you’ve obtained through law school are very valuable, and these are tools and skills that will stay with you through the rest of your career.

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