Fireside Chat with An Energy Attorney

Written by:

Puja Javalagi

People take many different paths into the energy industry. Pink Petro member, Mia Gardner, didn't start off in oil and gas, but has used her experience consulting and being an Assistant District Attorney to provide valuable legal counsel to the people at Vallourec. She is also a strong advocate for women, especially women in energy. She took the time to talk to me more about her support:

What university did you attend and what did you study?

I attended Trinity University where I double majored in Communications and International Studies and double minored in Spanish and Communications Management. After living abroad for a couple years, I came back to Houston and received my JD at the University of Houston Law Center.

You have experience outside of the energy industry. What made you leave law and join the energy industry?

The Enron/Arthur Anderson downturn hit right around the end of law school. I had not found a job by that summer and had trouble getting my foot in the door anywhere.  I moonlighted at a catering company and did some contract work for Shell. Following this, I got the position as the Assistant District Attorney in Potter County (Amarillo, TX), and then in Fort Bend Country a few years later. This position offered me incredible trial and courthouse experience. I was a prosecutor for the state of Texas and was generally responsible for intake of cases, gathering evidence, taking them to the grand jury when necessary, and trying the cases that did not end in a plea deal.

Amarillo was a bit behind the times in some ways, seeming like a small town from 20 years ago. I was a bit shocked by the opinions on gender roles and gender perceptions. In my time there, I dealt with police officers, victims, and their families. I adjusted by shedding the Louboutins, donning a plain black suit, and toning the city girl down so that I wasn’t regarded as an outsider. I was willing to adapt to the world around me so that the focus was on the work and not me, the person.

The last couple of years as a prosecutor, I tried child abuse cases almost exclusively, and there came a point that I wanted out. I moved over to a maritime firm that focused on insurance defense. A majority of our clients were offshore oil operators with claims regarding their rigs: injuries, vessel collisions, cargo damage, etc. I got an insider’s look into the oil and gas world. The thing about this industry is once you understand it, it is a small step into a contract review, litigation, or risk management role. In my current position at Vallourec, I review contracts, manage litigation, handle real estate issues, and provide employment law and insurance guidance.

As a woman working in the energy industry, have you ever come across forms of discrimination?

In law school, I felt a team spirit and that men and women treated each other equally. I was shocked in arriving in Amarillo, probably due to my age and naivety. When I was put in positions where I questioned law enforcement and (male) defense attorney, I got told I didn’t know what I was doing. There were times where I would get a case and thought there wasn’t enough evidence to take it to the grand jury. But, when I would go to officers to request more information, they challenged my opinion. I figured out that I was getting challenged based on my gender. I never backed down. The District Attorney, a male, and one of my mentors, had my back, which allowed me to keep fighting for what I know was right.

As for the energy industry, I have had a better experience. Although, I would love to see more diversity in field and technical positions, and in senior management and C-suite positions. This happens when women stay in or re-enter the work force to move into these positions. It also happens when the rest of the workforce is open-minded about diversity.

Do you make it a point to support the women around you? In what way?

Absolutely, and even more so after marriage and kids. Having a family is very enlightening. Now, I try to coach the women around me. If someone comes into my office with a problem and a look of self-doubt or uncertainty, I make sure they leave with more confidence. I always recommend changing the way you write emails or phrase certain things in order to show more confidence. Be confident in your answers, and trust your gut instinct. I will always help a woman that might be dealing with personal issues to help them get through a hard time. It might be a pep talk or providing guidance in how to delegate their work appropriately so that work gets completed. A lot of women don’t know that they can look for coaching like this. Many women just don’t expect it. I know I didn’t.

If you could go back in time and talk to your younger self, what would you tell her?

I would say “Open your eyes. Don’t be so naïve that the world will work in your favor if you just try really hard. There are currents working against you and it is not always you that is screwing it up. Sometimes you have to examine things a little harder till you realize that your success depends on the people around you and the confidence you exude.” The sooner you exude confidence, speak with authority, and make concise arguments, the sooner you will get respect. Take weak words out of your vocabulary and instead, be direct and unapologetic. Instead of asking if you can ask a question, be direct and ask your question. Get the answers you need, because the only way to learn is by asking questions.

I am also a big supporter of women learning to negotiate their salaries and knowing their worth. Women need to be willing to say no and instead ask for something that works for them. You gain credibility by coming in and knowing your worth.

How can you practice negotiations by yourself?

Practice in everyday life! Negotiate in places that are less high stakes. Try negotiating the price of your car or your next apartment lease. Go for broke. Don’t fear it. The more you practice, the better you will get and the more confident you will feel. In fact, I once went to a car dealership (with no intention of buying a car) just to negotiate the price to see if I could do it. There is nothing to lose by trying and instead you can gain experience and confidence through practice.

How does one determine his or her worth?

It is a combination of job experience, time in market, and the average pay of your position in that region. The best way to determine your worth to the company is to talk to other people in your position. Some people can be private with this information, but most people I have talked to have opened up. Go in with your research done and argue your worth.

Also, even as an entry level job seeker, make sure you understand a company’s employment policies. This includes parental leave policies and health insurance benefits as well as how their employees handle their work life balance. Even if you don’t see that coming up in the near future, it is something you must consider. No one knows how long they will be working for a certain company. You might be at a company for 5 years or 20 years. Either way, you want to know their policies going in.

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