Tracy Davis has served as the Assistant Regional Director of the Division of Enforcement of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s San Francisco office for over fifteen years. Here, she offers her insights into her work in both the private and public sectors, and speaks candidly about her experience navigating a legal career as a first generation lawyer and woman of color.
What is your title at the SEC and how long have you been there? Could you briefly describe the overall mission of the SEC and your role in carrying out that mission?
My title is Assistant Regional Director, and I’ve worked at the SEC for 15 years. The mission of the SEC is to protect investors and to ensure fair and orderly markets. I supervise a group of staff attorneys and staff accountants in their investigations of violations of the federal securities laws.
What made you choose to go to law school, and at that time, what did you envision yourself doing once you became an attorney?
I was one of the first people in my family to graduate from college, so when I went to law school, I didn’t have a set career path in mind at that time. During college, I took a class with one of my political science professors about the Constitution’s Tenth Amendment. This was a small tutorial where the students had discussions about various issues relating to state’s rights and the role of the federal government. The professor was really interesting and really supportive, and he had a few students, including me, help him with this project, which at the time was kind of a novel idea. He would summarize certain Supreme Court cases and then post the summaries and oral arguments from the Court on a website. This was twenty five years ago and the internet was very new and information was not nearly as accessible as it is now. So, we were helping him provide content on the website about certain Supreme Court cases. In the class, I was given a group of cases to listen to oral arguments and then review and summarize the cases. Then, we would discuss the cases during class. It was a really interesting process, and I found the cases, which mostly dealt with personal rights, like Brown v. The Board of Education, really fascinating. My professor was really inspiring, and I felt that long-term I wanted to do something with the law. I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to be a lawyer, but after taking that class, I decided that the law was something that I wanted to pursue long-term as a career goal.
What was your career trajectory? What were your internships in law school, and how did you develop your present career?
I was in law school at The University of Texas during a time when summer associate positions were really difficult to come by because the economy was not doing well. For the summer of my first year, I applied for a summer associate position with a big law firm in San Francisco. I had only been to the San Francisco Bay Area briefly during college, and I hadn’t really spent much time in San Francisco. So, when I applied for this summer associate position, I was looking for an opportunity to live in and experience a different part of the country. So, I applied for the summer associate position and I was hired. I worked at the San Francisco law firm during the summer after my first year of law school. I also worked at two firms in Dallas during the summer after my second year. I received an offer from each of those firms and ultimately decided I wanted to work in California, so I accepted the position as an associate at the San Francisco firm and I worked there for approximately five and a half years.
Were you practicing in the area of securities law at the San Francisco firm?
I was doing mostly general commercial litigation, and then in my last six months, I had a litigation case involving the federal securities laws. I found it really interesting and shortly thereafter I saw a position posted by the SEC in The Recorder and I just applied and I was offered a position.
You and I have previously discussed how there is a barrier to securities law for people of color, because many of us grow up in families that do not actively trade in securities, or perhaps are not even familiar with the stock market. Were you personally familiar with the stock market while growing up, and if not, how did you become interested in securities regulation?
I had no knowledge of the securities laws growing up. Like I said, I was one of the first people in my family to even go to college. We certainly didn’t know anything about the securities laws or the stock market. I was raised by a single mother who didn’t have any background in securities or investing, and so when I was working on this securities matter at the law firm, I just thought that the particular case and the securities law issues that I was working on were interesting. Once I was hired at the SEC, I quickly learned about the breadth of the securities laws and how important investing is to the average person. I learned how important it is to not only be able to invest in securities markets that are fair and orderly, but also that for investors who may not be very sophisticated in the securities laws, it’s critically important to have an agency that protects the investments of everyone, particularly unsophisticated investors, from people who may not be providing truthful or complete information to them. And growing up in a family that was unsophisticated in the securities laws, the longer I’ve worked at the SEC, the more I’ve learned that it’s so important what the Commission does, protecting the investments of everyday Americans.
As women of color, we are often pushed into public interest roles, and there is often this sentiment that, as a person of color, you’re almost selling out or letting your community down by pursuing a career in big law. Since you have practiced big law yourself, did you ever feel this pressure, and if so, how did you deal with that?
Well when I was in law school, because no one in my family had been a lawyer, I didn’t really know what to expect in terms of career options. I didn’t have expectations or even knowledge about big law versus public interest when I started law school. And, in both of those, there are so many different careers one can pursue. Once I started law school, I thought that I wanted to do something in the public interest area because I do think there can be (or at least for me) an assumption among people of color who aren’t familiar with the many different career options in the legal profession, that public sector jobs provide an opportunity to give back to the community. However, once I learned about different career options and that a number of big law firms allow attorneys to give back to the community through pro bono work, I didn’t necessarily feel like I was selling out by going to work at a large law firm. However, working at large law firms can present its own challenges for women of color. There can be significant barriers to women of color getting jobs at big law firms if they don’t have information about the opportunities available at big law firms, or personal connections that might make certain opportunities accessible to them. Even getting your foot in the door to summer positions at big law firms can be significantly helped by having connections that gets your resume read by those doing the hiring. My experience was that women of color often lack those connections that really make a difference. Also, some women of color may want to pursue careers in public interest right out of law school, but sometimes the decision about whether to go into public interest or big law may be influenced by their financial situation. For some women of color, working at a large law firm provides them financial security that they may not have had. I had some loans to pay back, my family didn’t have the money to help put me through law school, so I took out student loans that I had to pay back. So I went to work at a big law firm. But quite frankly, what became clear was that the lack of diversity in big law in general, can make it difficult for attorneys of color to remain in big law. You really have to have support, you have to have mentors, you have to have people who are willing to explain to you how to be successful in a large law firm in terms of partnership. And what I ultimately decided was that for me personally, when the position became open at the SEC, I felt like that was an avenue I wanted to pursue in the public interest. But whether you’re working in big law or whether you’re working in a public interest position, you can always do volunteer work, or work at a legal clinic or find opportunities that allow you to give back to the community.
We touched on the lack of diversity in big law- how did you deal with this in your career? Did you feel it was most helpful to seek out other attorneys of color for mentorship, if there were any?
There weren’t a lot of opportunities in terms of mentors of color, and so what I found was that the few attorneys of color, generally associates, support each other. We acted as support for each other, and honestly a lot of us ended up leaving. It had nothing to do with the law firm itself, but I think just the larger issue of support for attorneys of color in big law. But, mine was not a unique experience among attorneys of color at big law firms. There needs to be a better mechanism of support, because like I said, a lot of us come to big law without any background or experience in the law, and if you don’t have a mentor with whom you connect and who’s willing to spend the time to help you navigate the life at a large law firm, it can impact your experience there. For women of color, with so few attorneys who look like them or who have a shared background or experience, it can be very isolating.
Many law students go into big law immediately after graduation to gain experience and to pay off student loans, but many also see this as a short-term career and plan to transition to the government sector after a few years. Can you speak to the differences between working in big law versus the federal government, and do you have any advice for law students on how to successfully make that transition?
I think one of the biggest differences that I’ve found in working for the federal government is, that whatever agency it is, you have a particular mission that guides you, and you have to be really interested in and committed to that mission, and you have to be really driven by upholding that mission. There are a lot of benefits to working in the public sector for some people, in that you feel like you’re working on behalf of a constituency that maybe doesn’t have a voice. And at large law firms they do great work, it’s a great experience, and I will be forever grateful for the experience I had working at a large law firm. But, the ultimate end game for a large law firm is usually partner. And, you’ve got to know how to navigate the path that’s necessary to be successful as a partner at a large law firm. And, it will require significant billable hours and certain sacrifices. At the government, there’s not that same kind of pressure to feel like you’re giving up every weekend, every night. And, if you want to have a family, it becomes incredibly difficult to balance those two. And sometimes it can be a cliché, and maybe big law firms have gotten better about work/life balance, but certainly I feel like with coming to the federal government, work/life balance is a reality for me. I had my first two kids when I was at the large law firm. And, at that time, 18 plus years ago, it really wasn’t possible for me to have the same kind of work/life balance and participate in my kids’ lives to the same extent that I’ve been able to at the federal government. So I think again, people have to evaluate what’s important to them, and the values that are important to them. And for me, I felt like working for the federal government gave me the opportunity to have a successful legal career, practicing in an area that I find really interesting, working with people that are terrific legal minds, but it also gave me the ability to have a work/life balance and be able to spend time with my family.
Something that is discussed all the time, both within my law school and the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession, is the attrition rate of women attorneys at large firms. I often hear of women choosing to leave firms to go into the government sector or to become in-house counsel, because they feel that they do not have a good work-life balance at a firm, since, as you previously mentioned, the end-game at a firm is to make partner. It seems that one of the differences between government and big law is that there is not such a rigid hierarchy of associates and partners within the government sector- attorneys seem to have opportunities to advance their careers without climbing the ladder toward a partner position. Do you think perhaps it is this lack of hierarchy within the government sector that attracts people?
It depends on the agency and the office, and so there can be a hierarchy within any government agency, as well as at a law firm. Folks have to weigh whether that’s the right fit for them in terms of the hierarchy or lack thereof. I definitely feel like working at the federal government allows you to spend time on interests outside of work without regret or guilt. And to the extent your outside interests include children or family or friends, or other outside interests, one can have those outside interests and still be successful in their career because there aren’t those same demands on their time when they are expected to work late nights or weekends on a consistent basis. You can have a balance. Although there may be days when it may be necessary, even in the government, to work outside of a normal 8-5 schedule, on average, those are times are significantly fewer than at a big law firm.