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Importance of Mentorship: A Conversation with Sara J. Stankus

Sara Stankus is an associate in Hinckley Allen’s Hartford office, where she practices in the Firm’s Litigation Department. She represents clients in complex business disputes and has substantial experience with litigation in state and federal courts, and with arbitration proceedings. Sara has litigated a wide variety of claims, including breach of contract, tortious interference with contract, negligence, fraud and misrepresentation, breach of fiduciary duty, and unfair trade practices. Sara also serves as local counsel for cases pending in state and federal courts in Connecticut. Here, she tells us about her journey to Hinckley Allen and the importance of having female mentors at work.

HA: Tell us about your journey to Hinckley Allen and what drew you to litigation.

SS: Ever since law school, I’ve been drawn to litigation. Most of the courses I took were litigation-focused, and I’ve always enjoyed developing the strategy of a case. I see my cases as a sort of chess game where every move you make is part of a bigger strategy to beat your opponent. There’s no better feeling than winning a case for a client.

Coming out of law school, I got a job at Winget, Spadafora & Schwartzberg, a New York-based insurance defense firm. From day one, I hit the ground running with cases, going to court, meeting with clients, arguing motions and conducting depositions. I also handled a lot of the day-to-day work. That job gave me a lot of experience that I might not have had at a bigger firm.

While I loved working at that firm, I wanted to gain experience working on the plaintiff’s side. After three years, a clerkship position opened up at the Bankruptcy Court. I knew this would be an amazing experience because I’d get to work closely with Julie Manning, the Chief Bankruptcy Judge in Connecticut. While I clerked I was able to see how Judges think and learn what they look for in arguments and briefs. That job really elevated my ability to make compelling arguments. In Connecticut at least, you hardly ever see female bankruptcy attorneys arguing in the courtroom. Judge Manning spoke to me many times about the importance of having women in the legal profession and encouraged her clerks to stick with their careers during the tough times so that we could be the ones arguing those big cases.

I was really excited when a litigation position at Hinckley Allen became available. I am very good friends with another associate in the Hartford office and I said to her, “Help me get in there!” That’s how I came to be a litigation associate at Hinckley Allen. The firm has everything I wanted in a firm in terms of having those strong institutional clients that have interesting matters and a good firm culture.  A lot of times I’m on high-stakes cases, but I also get to run with many smaller cases on my own. It has been great to work with so many amazing litigators across all our offices.

HA: You brought up the point earlier about a gender gap in the courtroom. What do you think firms can do not only to hire more female attorneys in general, but also to retain them?

SS: I think firms are doing a really good job of hiring more women. At Hinckley Allen, for example, 60% of our associates are female. The problem many firm’s face is retaining women once they start having children. I think a lot of women lawyers assume they won’t be able to make it work at a firm after a certain point, because many firms are entirely focused on productivity and the bottom line. And often the critical years for developing business and making partner coincide with the years women decide to expand their families. It would be so helpful if firms had more of those crucial networking events during business hours so that new mothers could participate.

I think more firms need to not only understand the importance of keeping women for the long term; they need to develop policies that give women the flexibility to come back to work after they have had a baby and feel like they are succeeding and advancing in their careers even if they can’t hit their hours every week or go to a bunch of networking events. It just comes down to firms investing in their female attorneys and recognizing it’s important, and smart, to have them in leadership roles.

I’ve felt incredibly supported by Hinckley Allen since having my baby in August 2020. My supervisors and peers are very supportive and keep lines of communication open to make sure I’m not overwhelmed and feel supported. That kind of environment encourages women to stay with the firm.

HA: Can you tell us about a particularly memorable case you’ve worked on at Hinckley Allen?

SS: Companions and Homemakers stands out. That was a 14-day bench trial I did with Lisa Zaccardelli in the Summer of 2019. As with any trial, we weren’t sure how the judge was going to rule or how the evidence was going to be received, but we won after spending two years litigating the case. That was a really rewarding experience.

On the other side of things, I was also on a case that still haunts me because we lost and never saw it coming. We thought the judge understood our arguments and was on our side, and it was just a devastating loss. Honestly, I lost sleep over that one. That was a big learning experience for me because it helped me to realize that you can do all you can and think you have a case in the bag, but you truly never know.

HA: Who are some of your female role models?

SS: My main role models are actually females at Hinckley Allen. I hadn’t worked with any female partners at my previous firm, and it has been incredible to be in the company of so many brilliant, talented female lawyers. For example, Lisa Zaccardelli, my assigned partner mentor, has taught me so much and truly feels like so much more than a mentor. She is someone that I really look up to and, luckily for me, I work very closely with her on a lot of cases. I’ve learned a lot from Lisa, especially when it comes to communicating things to clients and to opposing counsel. It’s invaluable to have someone like her be invested in my professional success.