Marie Ma: Embrace the Reality of Rejection

May 24, 2022

Marie MaMarie Ma calls herself “the poster child for what not to do.” Now the division general counsel at Banana Republic and vice president and deputy general counsel at Gap Inc., Marie broke the traditional hiring protocol at Gap. She started as a paralegal, took law school classes at night, and is the only lawyer at Gap Inc. who was hired directly out of law school.

In a candid fireside chat with Morgan Lewis partner Joan Haratani, Marie said she feels compelled to share her story to help change the perception of what a legal career path looks like and to reinforce the importance of advocating for yourself and others.

You followed a non-traditional career path. Why is it important to you to share your story?

I consider myself the poster child for what not to do. I didn’t go straight to law school from under grad or attend a top-tier law school. I studied at night while working full-time. I didn’t graduate at the top of my class. And I was hired in-house directly from law school. Sometimes this profession isn’t very welcoming to talent that doesn’t fit a very specific traditional mold. But not everyone has the same options and opportunities to practice law.

I was very much the beneficiary of people giving me opportunities, opening doors, and coaching and mentoring me throughout my career. I still am. And I feel a level of responsibility to encourage others to really think broadly about the talent they hire, mentor and champion. I strongly recommend to anyone in a hiring position to keep an open mind and consider giving somebody a shot that might not look perfect on paper. People who haven’t had it easy, who’ve dealt with failure and setback or other obstacles in getting to where they are now, including those who have gone the non-traditional route to becoming a lawyer, tend to have a grit and humble confidence that I believe are also success factors for a career in law.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in attending law school at night or otherwise following a non-traditional path to becoming a lawyer?

Know that even if you haven’t seen it, it can be done in different ways. Don’t give up and don’t let traditional inhibitors like fear of failure, lack of a clear path, deter you.

Make sure you have the right kind of unconditional support around you – at the outset of my law school journey, someone told me to apologize in advance to my friends and family, which I did. Having the support helped me get through.  Don’t be so hard on yourself. There will be times when things don’t go as you expect or plan. Keep going. Focus on the long game. It’s a marathon not a sprint.

I would also encourage you to think of ways in which you can use your work experience, alternative path to your advantage. For example, for those of you working in the profession – paralegals, staff – use the opportunity to understand what the profession entails, to understand what you are signing up for.

Did you have a career-defining moment?

One moment was when I had been working at Gap as a paralegal and had just started law school at night. I decided to walk into the then GC’s office and asked her to consider me for an attorney role after I graduated. At the time, Gap didn’t hire any lawyers straight out of law school, but I thought, “No one is going to do for you if they don’t know you want it.” When I was close to graduating, Gap offered me a more senior non-attorney role and I made the terrifying decision to not take it even though I didn’t have a backup offer. It made me realize, had I not faced that fear and embraced the reality of rejection, my career would have taken a different path. Gap wouldn’t have realized how committed I was to taking a position as a lawyer out of law school and how much I wanted to stay at the company.

What advice would you give a younger you?

Don’t be so afraid of failing. I worried too much and was really hard on myself when I had hurdles and setbacks. In hindsight, I wish I had a much longer view of what this career involves. I realize now that you can have fear but not let it dictate your behavior.

What keeps you hopeful?

Seeing how much drive and optimism the next generation of lawyers has. Having a network of allies, mentors and friends, like Joan Haratani, who invest in and care deeply about the success of diverse talent. Being part of communities where we can champion diverse talent and advocate for the right change – like the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, Leadership Council on Legal Diversity and Diversity Lab.

How do you support others in the Asian American community?

Most of us aren’t in the position to effect change at a grand scale. That’s ok. It’s important to remember that everyone has the ability to do something from their seat. One way is getting involved in organizations – like the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area – to connect with others and access opportunities. Another example is Morgan Lewis hosting these kinds of conversations to share different perspectives and experiences, which is a great way to normalize our experiences as APIs and create safety in continuing to tell our stories.

What is the role of allies in the workplace?

I believe allies and advocates have very important roles: to be a source of safety – invite, be curious and listen; to model the right behavior – create space for others when they can’t do it for themselves – to make it easier for others to do the same.  Because of the seat they sit in, advocates also have the ability to use your position to champion the talent you see and create opportunities for those who may need it.