Q&A with Kathryn Wagner of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts

Kathryn (Katie) Wagner is the Executive Director of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA), which provides legal and education services to the New York arts community. She is responsible for developing VLA’s legal services, education and advocacy programming and for facilitating pro bono legal representation for hundreds of artists and arts and cultural organizations in need each year. Prior to joining VLA, Katie was Vice President and Counsel for the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA). She began her legal career in private practice, where she specialized in intellectual property and business litigation.

Katie recently sat down with me to speak about her experience in the legal profession, her advice for female attorneys and pro bono service. This interview has been condensed from its original form.


Q: You have had an exceptional career that has taken you through private practice, in-house representation and now, not-for-profit leadership. Was this all part of a master plan?

While I made a choice to go into a law firm coming out of law school, there was no real master plan. I knew that I eventually wanted to end up in-house, but I wanted to have law firm experience before I did that. Initially, I thought I would practice international law. After working in London for a summer, I realized I needed to have a specialty within that broader framework. To contribute meaningfully to an international transaction or dispute, I had to have a US-specific expertise in a particular area, such as corporate, dispute resolution or intellectual property. So when I began working as a litigator in private practice, I followed my interests and pursued both copyright and corporate governance. I received wonderful experience, and my later move to an in-house litigation role at NMPA was easy because it happened at a very exciting time for copyright law. There was a lot going on with the internet and music at the time and was a really interesting area of law.

I wasn’t looking to leave NMPA when the opportunity at VLA was proposed to me by a colleague who thought I might be interested in the position. It happened to combine all the areas of law I enjoy as well as my interest in business and management, and it allowed me to keep my hand in law, serve people who need help, and enjoy my work. I saw it as a win, win, win.

Q: What has your experience been like as a woman practicing in these different areas?

I consider myself fortunate in that when I began in private practice, I worked with a small number of people and was given an opportunity early on to take a leadership role in my cases. I have a knack for management and like looking at the bigger picture, so that role naturally fell to me. It was a seamless transition to take on a similar role when I moved in-house, and my work here at VLA is similar in that I am focused on the organization as a whole as well as the day-to-day operations. I work on amicus briefs, I teach classes, I counsel artists and I run the business side of the organization. I have a lot of different roles and no two days are the same.

Generally speaking, though, when I first started in private practice, I was surprised to learn that there was still much more work to be done despite the fact that there were so many women in law firms. There still is.

Q: What role do you think mentorship plays in developing female attorneys?

Mentorship is incredibly important! I had more senior women at my law firm who were very helpful and supportive, and my first direct boss at NMPA was so important to my career. Each generously shared their experiences navigating law firm and in-house politics, and helped develop my substantive legal expertise. I was fortunate to have found such strong female mentors to guide me on my career path.

Mentorship is also a part of my job that I love. When someone walks through my doors and is willing to ask me questions, I am happy to help. It’s crucial for women to have mentors and role models.

Q: What advice would you give female attorneys just starting their careers?

I encourage female attorneys to take control of their careers early on. You don’t need to know where you’re going – in fact, I suggest you shouldn’t– but you need to take care of yourself in the process. Women tend to get into a project and dig in and then all of a sudden it’s a year or two later – working like that can affect your career and your life. It’s important to get out in the broader community, get involved in business development and create networks. Business development skills are critical, and it’s important for women to learn early on how to get business, bring it in and get credit for it.

I also say to keep an open mind. I thought I would be doing international work and it turns out I’m a good litigator and mediator, which is great for my current role at VLA. Be open to opportunities you are given in your firm – the work you do can be helpful to wherever you end up. I once had a securities fraud case and learned a lot about accounting, which has been very helpful!

That said, if you have an area of interest, go out and explore it. Even if you’re working on a case that isn’t optimal for what you want to do, there are ways to keep in touch with the areas of law you are interested in, like joining committees on bar associations. And for women who are looking to move out of the law firm setting, I encourage them to start looking earlier on, because it might take some time to find the right fit.

Q: You make an excellent point about taking control of your career. How do you think that relates to achieving a work-life balance?

Well, I did not allow myself a good work-life balance when I was working in a law firm. It was my doing because I felt I had to be there all the time. I took a great deal of responsibility on all my cases, which is a good thing, but in retrospect, as I tell all my interns now, it’s important to take care of your life. Work is always going to be there, and you need to make sure that you are going to your yoga class, seeing your partner, reading a book, whatever the case may be for you. I recognize that’s easier said than done in a law firm, but it’s important to do it from the get-go. As long as you’re getting your work done, there shouldn’t be any complaints, and you don’t have to sacrifice your life to do that.

I also think that one way to achieve work-life balance is to give back and do pro bono work. For example, if you are doing service with VLA, you are getting more out of it than you are giving the artist. This representation is essential to them, but it is also incredibly fulfilling and gives you a good balance, not just in your “you” private time, but in the time you are giving back to the community.