Women on the Leading Edge of Law
Growing up in an idyllic, Detroit suburb with her younger brother and parents, Kristen Hardy, legal counsel at Briggs & Stratton, was fortunate that she never had to look far to find role models.
“I was well taken care of—by my parents and both sets of grandparents. I had a host of great Black women as guideposts. My maternal grandmother was the only babysitter any of us had growing up, and she taught me more than I think she realizes. Once I started school, I was already able to read some elementary content. And my mom is a rock star. She is strong and assertive but at the same time, she is kind and a good person. I think that I have inherited similar traits from her,” said Kristen.
Kristen initially thought she would become a scientist, but after her freshman year, she decided to take a step back to look at the things she really enjoyed; reading and writing were at the forefront. She also enjoyed philosophy, so with that in mind, she thought a career in law might suit her. After completing her undergraduate studies at Seton Hall University on the East coast, where she majored in criminal justice and minored in psychology, Kristen decided that she wanted to attend law school closer to home.
“I ended up falling in love with the idea of attending law school during my sophomore year. I really felt that my skills would be best used in that profession due to my passion for reading, research, and writing. I came to Milwaukee in 2011 to attend Marquette Law School, in large part because I wanted to be closer to home. Once I visited the beautiful Eckstein Hall, I was sold,” she said.
Kristen said that while she can’t recall any specific difficulties beyond the normal challenges of attending law school, learning to navigate through the profession proved difficult.
“I didn’t have any immediate family members that were lawyers or judges, so simply understanding the dynamics of the professional world of law was new to me, as is often the case for many African Americans and other people of color. As a professional, you try to do your job to the best of your ability knowing that bias, both conscious and unconscious, may cause people to automatically doubt your ability. There are times when, despite displaying aptitude, that your ability may be challenged. Despite these instances, there was never a moment where I thought about giving up. In many ways, the law profession remains the same as it was years ago; you see more people of color and women than in the past, but it’s still relatively homogenous.
“I’ve been fortunate to work for companies that care about me and my growth, including at Briggs & Stratton. Not all attorneys are that fortunate. I’m always cognizant of the fact that there’s more work to be done in terms of diversity. I hope that 20 years from now, we’re not still having conversations about making the legal community more diverse, because it will be more diverse. Little by little, we are trying to dismantle the lack of diversity within the legal community,” she said.
In addition to the support of her family, Kristen credits individuals like Judge Nancy Joseph and Marquette Law Professor Kali Murray for helping her advance through law school.
“I interned for Judge Joseph during my second year of law school, and I credit her with challenging me to think about legal issues more critically. Professor Murray is one of the few African American professors at Marquette Law School, and she quietly wraps her arms around all of her students in an attempt to make us better. While being taught and coached by these women, I didn’t necessarily think of them as mentors. But in retrospect they definitely were, and continue to be women I look to for advice. So many people have gone out on a limb to offer me advice and mentorship, which is one of the reasons I feel so strongly about paying it forward,” she said.
Kristen is a mentor with the Judge Charles Clevert Mentoring and Internship Program, a partnership between the Eastern District of Wisconsin Bar Association and Marquette Law School. Through the Summer Youth Institute (SYI), City of Milwaukee middle and high school students are introduced to the legal system. They are exposed to careers in law, and given practical tools for their educational goals. The classes visit the federal courthouse, participate in a mock jury trial where they serve as jurors, and meet various attorneys, judges, and other professionals who work and practice in federal court. Justices of the Eastern District of Wisconsin also support SYI by judging SYI’s oral argument which is the grand finale of the SYI program.
Kristen is also the immediate past president of Wisconsin Association of African American Lawyers (WAAL), whose mission is to diversify the legal community. With rich historical roots, including the participation of Milwaukee icons such as the late Vel and Dale Phillips and Mildred Harpole, WAAL continues to be a pillar for minority attorneys in Wisconsin. During Kristen’s year as president, the organization raised more than $50,000 to provide scholarships to African American law students in Wisconsin. The group has also helped build a pipeline for lawyers interested in becoming members of the judiciary.