Carla Christofferson

Hometown: Tolna, ND
Current Job: Managing Partner, O’Melveny & Myers Los Angeles
Education: University of North Dakota ‘89
YLS year: 1992
Clerkship: Judge William M. Byrne, Jr., U.S. District Judge for the Central District of California
Activities at YLS: First Generation Professionals, Yale Law Journal, Street law, Barristers’ Competition, State Attorney’s Office, Moot Court


What do you do? How did you get there?

I do two things. First, I’m a litigator. I focus on civil litigation and trials, which means that I handle mostly corporate disputes regarding everything from tax issues to valuations to contract disputes. Then I’m also the managing partner of the L.A. office so I manage the attorneys and the staff in the office, keep information flowing, and try to maintain a good workplace.

What’s the day-to-day like?

It varies. Usually, I have two or three client calls on unexpected things where they need advice then and there. I meet with my teams to stay on schedule with any ongoing litigation. We may then have a meeting about office space. It’s pretty varied, which I like.

What do you like about working at a law firm?

I feel fortunate to work at a law firm because the cases we work on are very complex and really important to the client. We work on teams. When you get a team, it’s just fun. Your teams are your go-to people. You have funny things happen in litigation or at trial, and you are going through it together. You spend a lot of time with them, and they’re great people. They’ve become like a family to me. I have coworkers who would walk through walls for me. It’s the same thing working for a client. I want to reach in and grab their soul and protect them. It’s a family in the best sense. And, I’ve been fortunate that the clients I work with are intelligent and make good decisions. They have really interesting problems.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I’m a relationship person. I like getting clients that I work with over and over and getting to know the next person who’s going to become my client. Just as an example, I started running with a client (and she runs way too fast). It’s about building very deep relationships. That’s always changing. That’s always evolving. For me, the best thing is when I get the call from the client for the second case. That’s what’s most exciting.


What was most valuable about your YLS experience?

I think the most valuable part—and it sounds trite—was learning to think. Yale is very good at not only teaching black letter law, but also teaching the nuances: how you can interpret things in different ways. That’s how important cases are won. That’s how policy gets changed. By knowing the boundaries, but then knowing how you can stretch them.

How have you used this skill throughout your career?

As a recent example, it was very important in the Nevada marriage case. A law was passed denying the right to marry for same sex couples. We had to know the current legal landscape and also know which states were poised to potentially change the law. Essentially, we were developing arguments in a quickly changing landscape and using them to hopefully win the case for our clients. Those are the types of problems we get to work on a lot as YLS grads, and those are really rewarding. They have an impact.

How did your extracurricular experiences at YLS help your career?

I really liked and did well in the Barristers’ Competition. That showed me that I wanted to be a trial lawyer and that I could be good at it. I also did well in Moot Court, but that was pretty nerve-wracking for me.

How did your summer experiences inform your career choice?

I spent both summers at law firms. After YLS, I went to the smaller Century City OMM office because the bigger L.A. office scared me, but I realized that, for me, the bigger office had advantages, including more diverse perspectives and opportunities. There’s just such a wide variety of people here in the L.A. office.

What skills do you rely on now that law school may not have emphasized enough?

I’m an introvert living in an extroverted world. Because Yale values intellect so much, an introvert can feel very protected. Going into the world where extroverts often get more attention, I’m not sure I was as prepared to feel comfortable asking for assignments or going for the assignments I wanted. It worked out fine, but I certainly didn’t seek out assignments at first.


What do you view as your biggest accomplishment?

I’m proud of the diversity we have achieved in the L.A. office of OMM, and I’d like to think I played some part of that through the environment that we created and the teams that we have. I think one of my biggest accomplishments outside of law was owning the WNBA L.A. Sparks for eight years because it was something I never imagined doing. Even though I don’t own the team now, it was still really important to me.

What do you hope will be your biggest accomplishment in the future?

My real purpose is to try to help move the profession along and make it better for women. I do try to help women as much as I can. I have a written goal to help a woman every day. It’s important to me because, whether or not you say it’s karma, so many people have helped me. I’ve been given so much help along the way by my mentors, many of whom were men and some of whom were women. I feel like I have to use those opportunities to help other women.

How do you think the legal field is for women?

The legal field is always changing and things continue to get better. A lot of the remaining issues have to do with implicit biases. It is important to be aware of our own implicit biases and find effective ways to make others aware of their implicit biases so that we can provide opportunities for women and other underrepresented attorneys. Underrepresented attorneys often share the feeling of not having as many visual reminders that they can succeed. That will just remain a challenge because it’s not a perfect playing field yet. The biggest change that I’ve seen, though, is the willingness of women to affirmatively help other women and get their backs and give advice. I don’t think anyone believes anymore that there’s just room for one woman, which has been called the queen bee syndrome. I see that disappearing, which is fantastic.

How do you deal with work/life balance?

I don’t. I am really good at one thing one day, and another day I’m good at another thing. One day I may suck at being a partner because I’m at a school play. Other days I feel like I’m letting my family down because I’m in trial. For me, I think a great thing I read in a book by Marcus Buckingham is that it’s not about juggling, but rather catching and cradling. You will always have a lot of balls in the air and you need to decide when and which balls are ok to drop and which balls you really need to catch and cradle. I’m lucky because I have a great husband who helps and I have great friends to also help me out. And if I don’t always have home-cooked meals or my kids have the same Halloween costume two years in a row, it’s alright as long as my kids are happy.

I do think it is possible to have it all if you take the long view, and I think that’s what gets forgotten – that it is not a daily balance. When I’m slow at work, I’m all in at home. When I have to be all in at work, my family understands. I just take a long view.

What salient moments have you faced in your career?

When I interviewed, the interview process at YLS was three weeks long. I didn’t decide I wanted to interview at a large firm until the third week, and luckily, that was the week OMM was on campus. Suzanne Uhland – now a partner in our San Francisco office, and Holly Kendig – now a Superior Court judge, interviewed me. Seeing these two accomplished and personable women saying “You can do this. Join us!” was pivotal to me. It goes to the point that people make about diversity: people have to see others with commonality who have made it. OMM seemed like a place where the sky was the limit. That was a very pivotal moment, to see people who I could use as role models.

Another pivotal moment was meeting the judge that I clerked for, Judge Byrne. He disclosed that his mom was from North Dakota, from a little town near me. I knew at that moment that I wanted to clerk for him. I spent a year with Judge Byrne and met his friend Warren Christopher, who at the time was Assistant Secretary of State. Warren Christopher had also grown up in North Dakota, and he was an incredible mentor to me at OMM. It really was such a defining year of my life, because I heard the stories about Judge Byrne and Warren Christopher, who both were so pivotal in building L.A. It gave me a perspective on coming to L.A., as a newcomer, but also as to the importance of trying to impact whatever community you are in. It defined who I was. Having these things come together was incredibly lucky. The chances of that happening seemed so unlikely. I basically ended up with a little ND mafia. Whether you believe in fate or good luck, it was just remarkable.

What expected or unexpected professional obstacles have you faced? What has been your biggest challenge?

For me, it was overcoming the basic insecurities of thinking that I snuck into Yale, that I didn’t belong there, that I snuck into law firm, and just thinking that I was going to be found out and sent back to North Dakota. People tell you that everyone feels that way, but you never believe it. Gaining the confidence to know that I do provide good service and good ideas took a long time.

How did you move beyond that?

Sometimes I haven’t. But I think that your greatest weakness can also be your greatest strength. I think that insecurity is what keeps me working hard and keeps me digging in. Having a firm that was like a family to me was also good for moving beyond my insecurities. But sometimes you have to just live with your insecurities.


Do you have any advice for law students about insecurities?

Yale law students are so smart and accomplished and inquisitive. It doesn’t matter if they want to end up at a law firm or in government or writing books and blogs about happiness. They’re going to be successful. They were chosen for a reason. We all feel like we were the ones Yale made a mistake in choosing, but I would tell them that isn’t true.

What advice was helpful to you as a law student, or what advice did you wish you had received?

Some advice that would have been useful is: just because you go to a law firm doesn’t mean that you can’t do a lot for the communities you’re in. Because of YLS’s emphasis on government, we miss opportunities to tell people going to firms that they can still use that Yale ethos to make a difference in the community. In fact, they have the resources to make that impact, whether it’s through pro bono work or being on boards. That ethos has been a big part of my firm career, and that’s something I learned along the way.

What advice do you have for female law students?

There are disadvantages and advantages to being whoever you are: your gender, your race, your socioeconomic background. You have to be aware of that. There are explicit and implicit biases, but you can’t let them paralyze you. Otherwise you’ll die of a thousand paper cuts. You definitely don’t want to be the person complaining about every small slight. It does help to have a group of close friends who can confirm that you’re not imagining those slights, but they might be unintentional. It’s important to be clear-eyed and aware of implicit bias, but it’s more important to keep moving forward. Sharing strategies and strengths are important. For example, one of my closest friends is a fantastic negotiator, and I turn to her year after year for advice. Now I’m really good at giving women advice about their negotiations. You have to get each other’s backs.

What advice do you have for finding a mentor?

I looked for people who seemed to be having fun practicing law and who were engaged with what they were doing. Those were the people who ended up being my mentors for twenty years. Pick a mentor who you like working with. It’s hard to be a mentor without working with that person.

What traits impress you most in young lawyers?

For me, it’s enthusiasm, when people seem to like what they’re doing. I think that’s because I like working in teams and I like team members who seem like they enjoy working on the case. What I almost said was resilience because we just had a women’s leadership academy, and we had people talk about the value of resilience. But I think that’s a hard thing to see in a new attorney. So for me, a lot of it comes from having an optimistic outlook.

What is the most direct path to where you are?

The most likely path to get to where I’m at is to enjoy each place along the path. Each place along the path has its own advantages and disadvantages. You may think “I want to become a partner,” but there’s something amazing about being a junior attorney when you know all the facts of a case and you’re feeding them to the partner. Then you get more senior, and you have these other things that you’re doing like learning to supervise someone. I think it’s important to like every step that you take. Then you’re on the path.

What are important values to keep in mind?

Trust, in a broad sense. Trust that someone’s going to work hard and contribute and that they’re going to care about the client and the outcome. And, be someone who others will trust, who will stay with the team and not go home at 3 p.m. when everyone else is staying until midnight before trial. You could put other descriptors on that, but you want to create a relationship where other people trust you and want to work with you again. Those are the people I really like on our team—they’re all very different. They’re people I’m having over for Thanksgiving. They’re family.
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