Aug. 5, 2020 – Anza D’Antonio knows the challenges of building a successful career from almost nothing.
“Other than the color of my skin, I didn’t grow up with privilege,” she said. “My high school world view was limited. My mother’s formal education ended midway through ninth grade, and my father did not graduate high school either. I self-funded my entire college and law school education, and didn’t know a single lawyer before law school.”
Now, with a successful career as an in-house counsel, D’Antonio mentors those who, like her, face added challenges when crafting a successful future. “I mentor to help lessen those challenges for others,” D’Antonio said, “Life doesn’t have to be as hard as it often is.”
For D’Antonio, the commitment to diversity and inclusion extends beyond assisting law students and younger lawyers – it is woven into the fabric of daily life. In fact, when an opportunity to assist Syrian refugees presented itself, D’Antonio and her family welcomed a refugee family of six to live in their home while the family established themselves.
“In my job as a corporate lawyer, I work hard to cultivate a culture of accountability and responsibility. ‘See something, say something’ and ‘lead by example’ are what I train my colleagues. These core beliefs follow me home long after the workday has ended,” D’Antonio wrote in a blog article in September 2016, after the Syrian family moved in.
The refugee experience, as she reflected a year later, reinforced her belief that it takes “heart, grit, patience, determination, and some hustle” to create anything worthwhile.
And it’s that same determination that drove her to raise the mentorship opportunities for high school and law school students to a new level – by giving them the opportunity to learn about legal career possibilities they likely never imagined.
Acknowledging Trailblazers for Diversity & Inclusion
D’Antonio of Johnson Controls, Milwaukee, is the 2020 recipient of the Diversity & Inclusion Trailblazer Award from the State Bar of Wisconsin Diversity & Inclusion Oversight Committee. The award celebrates an individual who contributes to and enhances diversity and inclusion within the Wisconsin legal profession.
Shannon Green is communications writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. She can be reached by org sgreen wisbar email or by phone at (608) 250-6135.
“We want the award to inspire others to become champions of diversity and inclusion,” committee member Andrew Chevrez said.
The award was inaugurated in 2019, and D’Antonio is its second recipient. “The honor is particularly special to me,” she said, “because the nomination came from outside my organization and recognizes my lifelong commitment to help improve the lives and advance the careers for those who face racial, gender, and economic barriers.”
Johnson Controls’ Summer Intern Program
Mentoring is important to individuals and the profession, D’Antonio said, for the same reasons that diversity and inclusion is important. “Mentoring increases access to opportunity,” she said, “and diversity and inclusion is critical because, of course, it is the right thing to do but also because it leads to different perspectives and more thoughtful solutions.”
It is that philosophy that drove her innovations in the 2019 summer internship program at Johnson Controls – an ongoing program with a new manager each year. “That allows a variety of folks to get involved in structuring the intern summer in their own unique way, building on the strengths they have,” she said.
The Johnson Controls intern program provides a legal experience and opportunities for both high school students and law students, “many of whom are from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the legal profession,” said Judge Carl Ashley, chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Oversight Committee.
The program is a piece of Johnson Controls’ priority on diversity and inclusion, says Grady Crosby, vice president of public affairs and chief diversity officer. “We want to reflect the global footprint of the customers we serve, and we want to empower every employee to take an active role in creating a culture that values uniqueness, celebrates creativity, and drives innovation.”
“Business and society functions at a far higher capability when everyone is invited to participate in meaningful ways,” Crosby said.
Posing for a photo with their summer 2019 interns at Chicago’s Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath office are firm partner Tracy Ferak at right, and Anza D’Antonio at second from right, on a visit as part of their cooperative intern programs.
Stacking the Pipeline
In leading the program in 2019, D’Antonio drew from her own pathway as a student that, she admits, took a few turns before she settled on corporate law. “You can’t imagine having a career, when you don’t know anything about it.”
So, with the support of her company and colleagues, D’Antonio piloted opportunities for both high school and law students that involved not just Johnson Controls, but regional firms and the courts. She wanted to provide a student experience that showcased the variety of legal careers that exist.
The effort included a law school intern exchange program, where – leaveraging the resources of Johnson Controls and the Milwaukee offices of Foley & Lardner and Godfrey & Kahn, and the Chicago office of Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath – interns in all locations jointly participated in skills training, interviewing preparation, and mentoring opportunities.
You can’t imagine having a career, when you don’t know anything about it.
Also as part of the program, a mix of high school students – including those from backgrounds underrepresented in the legal profession – had the opportunity to spend experience “a day in the life of a lawyer.”
The idea came from a request that D’Antonio allow a high school student to shadow her for a day. “I knew if I allowed any 16 year old to watch me work – reading and editing contracts all day – the result would not be an interest in a legal career,” she said.
D’Antonio honored the request, but with a twist. Additional students were invited to job shadow lawyers at five locations in the Milwaukee area. Students toured the Federal Courthouse and met with a magistrate judge, met with in-house counsel at Johnson Controls, spoke with the executive director-lawyer at one of Wisconsin’s largest charities, discussed public interest law with lawyers at the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, and ended the day at Wisconsin’s largest law firm meeting with partners and associates.
The programs provided high school and law school students an opportunity to imagine careers in areas they hadn’t known existed before. “What students know that reinsurance litigation is a career?” D’Antonio joked.
D’Antonio’s efforts made a very strong impact on the students, says Crosby. And that impact is good news for the legal profession.
In nurturing the pipeline of talented people, D’Antonio helps them to picture themselves as a corporate attorney. “Anza took the time to plant seeds of preparation, expectations, and determination in those who don’t look like her nor are from where she’s from,” Crosby said.
The Path Ahead
Because the path to a legal career is never easy, D’Antonio tells the students she encounters that she will always be a resource who is there for them.
“Like most lawyers, making the world a more just and equitable place is important to me. So even though I practice in a corporate environment, there are everyday things I can do in a mentor setting that works toward justice,” D’Antonio said.
Aiming for a legal career is difficult enough – but with the pandemic affecting the country’s economic situation, the path is now more difficult for everyone. Law grads, in particular, face an even harder time securing full-time positions – which means mentoring those just entering the profession is critical.
“I ask my State Bar colleagues to think of ways that they can help ease the burden students are facing,” D’Antonio said. “I am sure there are many ways to address the challenges that the pandemic creates for students, but the challenges require us to lead with compassion and creativity.”