May/June 2021

Why not you?

By Dyan Ebert 

In early May, I attended my daughter’s graduation from Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. While we were required to wear masks and social distance throughout the ceremony, it was one of the first relatively “normal” things I had done in quite a long time. And because my parents—whom I had not seen in-person since last June—were also able to attend, it was even more special. 

The excitement of the occasion and the fact that it was a big milestone for my daughter heightened my attentiveness during the commencement ceremony; I found myself listening closely to each speaker on the program, not wanting to miss any of their words of advice.  

The keynote address was particularly interesting. Geisha J. Williams was the first and, to date, the only Latina CEO of a Fortune 200 company, and has been recognized as the highest-ranking Latina leader in business. She is the former CEO and president of PG&E Corporation, one of the largest combined natural gas and electric energy companies in the United States. Before joining PG&E in 2007, Ms. Williams worked for over two decades at Florida Power and Light Company, where she was vice president of power systems after having worked her way up through a variety of positions of increasing responsibility. At the time of the commencement address, Ms. Williams was serving as an independent board member and chair of Osmose Utility Services, Inc., as a member of the supervisory board of Siemens Energy, Inc., and as an independent director of Artera Services, LLC. She also serves on the board of directors of Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

During her remarks, Ms. Williams did not focus on her personal achievements. (I learned about her background through a web search.) Instead, she told the story of an interaction she had with the then-president and CEO of Florida Power and Light Company shortly after she graduated from college and started working there. The president engaged her in a conversation about the future of the company. Ms. Williams balked when the president asked her if she could see herself in his position one day; the president pressed her on her hesitation, asking her a very simple question: “Why not you?”  

Ms. Williams told the graduates that this question was a turning point in how she perceived her own abilities. She realized in that moment that she was capable of effectuating change in the world and in business. She challenged the Illinois Wesleyan University graduates to ask themselves this same question.

Ms. Williams’ message made me think about my career as an attorney and my role as a bar leader. It is an understatement to say that our society in general and the legal profession in particular are in the midst of some very important and challenging issues. It would be easy to express doubt on one’s ability to address—and better yet, resolve—these issues. But, why not me? Why not you?

Lawyers are problem-solvers. We have the ability to effect change in society. We can help to eradicate instances of racial inequality in our justice system. We can work toward ensuring equal access to justice and upholding the rule of law. We can also confront head-on the problems facing our own profession by taking concerted steps toward improving lawyer well-being and work-life balance. But we can only accomplish these things through individual action and engagement. We cannot sit back and wait for someone else to take the reins. I encourage you to continually ask yourself, “Why not me?”

This is my last president’s column. My entire year as MSBA president took place in the virtual world. Every meeting I attended and every speech or presentation I gave was done on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Webex. While I can’t help feeling some regret for missing out on what I have always found to be the most rewarding part of the MSBA—the personal connections and interactions—I am so grateful for the opportunity to lead the MSBA, and so proud of the way the MSBA weathered the covid storm. 

Thank you for allowing me to serve in this important role.

Dyan Ebert is a partner at the central Minnesota firm of Quinlivan & Hughes, P.A., where she served as CEO from 2003-2010 and 2014-2019. She also served on the board of directors of Minnesota CLE from 2012-2019. 

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