Interview with Reena Bajowala

Reena Bajowala (B.A. English & Pre-Law UIUC '01), is a partner in Jenner & Block’s Complex Commercial Litigation Department in Chicagoland. UIAAAN interviewed her in spring of 2016.

UIAAAN: In just 14 years since graduating from the University of Illinois, you have become an experienced attorney and been recognized for your expertise. What was your long-term career plan at the time you graduated? What do you think is the key to your professional development and accomplishments?

RB: When I graduated from the University of Illinois, I had law school in mind.  My first mock trial experience occurred when I was in the eighth grade, and it hooked me on being a litigator.  I loved the challenge and uncertainty of the facts, the witnesses and the exhibits as much as I enjoyed the process, the strategy and the need to think “on -your -feet.”

That said, I took the LSAT for the first time while in college and panicked.  I canceled my score at the end of the exam.  Instead of taking that as a sign that I shouldn’t go to law school, I took a year off and focused on studying for the LSAT, with the added bonus that I gained some work experience, first as a law firm project assistant and later as an HR assistant at another law firm.  I did much better the next time I took the LSAT.  Plus, taking a year to work helped give me a little discipline and maturity that made me take law school seriously.

As for the key to professional development – whether it is mine or anyone else’s – it’s important to persevere despite the roadblocks that come your way.  My parents were forced to flee Africa with virtually nothing.  They lived in a studio apartment and worked diligently to build a life for me and my two sisters.  Knowing their story has given me true perspective.

UIAAAN: What experience or coursework at the University of Illinois has helped or nurtured you most in your personal and career development?

RB: I had a great experience at the University of Illinois.  Competing on the UIUC Mock Trial team was a great way to explore what it is like being a lawyer.  We had the opportunity to work as a team to attack a case, talk about strategy and learn trial advocacy skills.  

There were also mentors at U of I who made a difference in my life.  Once when I was challenged with managing a group project, I went to my English teacher for advice.  I was overly worried about others on the team.  He told me not to compromise my goals for quality for the sake of the team.  That stuck with me.  Teamwork is about leadership; I see that every day in my work as a lawyer.

UIAAAN: How do you view your Asian-American identity? Are there any inherited Asian characteristics playing a vital role in your life?

RB: My Asian-American identity is at the core of who I am.  One of the great benefits of growing up in an Asian household was that hard work, diligence and striving to succeed were expected, and not exceptional.  It was assumed that I was competent and capable.  That expectation can often be tricky to deal with, but studies now show that parental expectations are the #1 indicator of success.  

For example, my parents believed in the highest potential of each of their children.  If I got an A-, they asked why I didn’t earn an A or an A+.  If I said that I could not do better, my dad would ask, “Why not?”  As an adult and a professional, I find that I now challenge myself by asking “Why not?” to evaluate whether I am giving my best effort.

UIAAAN: As the Chair of the South Asian Bar Association’s Women’s Committee, you have been helping women succeed in a the male-dominated industry. What would you say to the alumnae who have recently joined the workforce or started a business?

RB: Collaborate with other alumnae and understand the challenges, but do not be demoralized by them.  There is a lot of literature out there about bias against women.  Those are realities.  However, the only way to change things is to keep at it and try to reach a leadership level, so you can hopefully alter the way things are done.  “Be the change you want to see” is powerful motivation, but do so collaboratively.  

UIAAAN: What motivated you to participate in the University of Illinois Mock Trial Team and become a mentor for law school graduates?

RB: When I was on my high school mock trial team, we placed first in the state and went on to place eighth in the country.  I loved the intellectual rigor, on-my-feet thinking and the competitive nature of the team and haven’t looked back since.  At UIUC, the team dynamics were wonderful.  I count my coaches and teammates among my closest friends, so mentoring current students is extremely important to me.  The ability to give back to others is a wonderful gift.

UIAAAN: What do you consider to be your greatest current challenge? How do you stay passionate about your job, and, at the same time, keep a good work-life balance?

RB: My greatest challenge is time management, which requires stopping and assessing what is on your to-do list rather than rushing to get work done.  It also requires letting go of trying to do everything yourself and leveraging your the team members and resources around you.  When I can do these things right, the passion for my job is apparent, because it is not clouded by stress.

One of the ways in which I remain passionate about my work is through my law firm’s pro bono program.  At any given time, I represent people and projects that would not otherwise have access to our justice system.  I also work hard to be involved with programs that make a difference in our community, like the South Asian Bar Association, Chicago Volunteer Legal Services Foundation and other important groups.

UIAAAN: In one sentence, how would you summarize your feelings right after your graduation, versus where you are today?

RB: Uncertainty about the future and my place in it moved inch by inch to greater certainty as I stayed true to my history and culture, worked hard and stayed focused on contributing my talents to work, family and community.

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