Kanya Bennett is an attorney and currently serves as Counsel to the Committee on the Judiciary of the U.S. House of Representatives, where she works to advance Federal legislation. In this capacity, she works with Members of Congress and their staffs, constituents, advocates, academics, and other interested individuals to develop and implement the Committee’s policy agenda. Prior to her work on the Committee, Ms. Bennett served as a Congressional Fellow with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. The fellowship allowed Ms. Bennett to serve in a Congressional office and with the Committee. She earned her BS in Journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and JD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law.

Ms. Bennett is a high powered legal professional in our nation’s capitol and I am thrilled that she took time out of her extremely busy schedule to discuss her career background and philosophies with me. She is the first of many leaders that I will feature to provide you with real life examples of professionals that are making exciting moves in their careers.

Q: So, tell me about your current role as Counsel to the Committee on the Judiciary of the U.S. House of Representatives. What does a “normal” day look like for you?

The Committee on the Judiciary consists of five Subcommittees that examine and advance policy pertaining to civil rights and civil liberties, criminal justice, immigration, commercial and administrative law, antitrust, intellectual property, and the judiciary. I draft legislation, organize Congressional hearings and briefings, and coordinate Committee and House consideration of bills on policy issues in a manner that is consistent with the Committee’s agenda. This agenda is shaped by our work with Members of Congress and their staffs, constituents, advocates, and other interested persons and entities.

As you can imagine, serving as Counsel to the Committee on the Judiciary provides for a varied daily experience. For example, one week, I implemented a Subcommittee hearing on a policy matter which required me to identify and secure hearing witnesses, draft a hearing memo, questions, and other materials, and prepare Member statements and briefings. Another week, I staffed Members of Congress on the House Floor during consideration of a commemorative resolution, continued drafting legislation in response to several policy concerns, and met with representatives from several organizations that wanted to make Congress aware of their policy interests.

Q: What advice would you give to someone trying to gain entry into your field?

My advice for someone looking to pursue a career in policy and politics is to utilize fellowship opportunities as they can open up a lot of professional doors. Professional fellowships are great for a couple of reasons. One, fellowships are for a defined period of time, usually one or two years, so they can be used to fully immerse yourself within a particular field in order to make an informed decision as to whether or not you want to continue that career path or pursue something else. Two, if you decide you want to continue advancing your career within that field, you are equipped to transition fairly easily into a permanent position because the fellowship will allow you to acquire the necessary skill-sets and build important relationships in that particular realm.

After law school, I was a Congressional Fellow with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. I knew that I wanted to use my legal education to engage in public service, but I wasn’t certain in what capacity. The fellowship provided me with the opportunity to serve in a Congressional office and immerse myself in the policy and political processes, which I found rewarding. The fellowship then allowed me to transition permanently to the House Judiciary Committee and continue my commitment to public service. There are so many entities that offer fellowships, from organizations, to universities, to government agencies. There is also nothing that says that you can’t reach out to an entity without a formal fellowship program to discuss the possibilities of creating one for you.

Q: You’ve had a very successful career as an attorney on Capitol Hill. What would you say are the ingredients for career success and upward mobility?

I believe there are three main ingredients for career success and upward mobility.

One, constantly assess and define your professional self and purpose. Every few months, regardless of where you are in your professional life – whether you’re content with your current employment situation or looking for a new job – take some time to evaluate where you are career wise. Determine how you are growing, developing, and progressing professionally and if you are at a place that is consistent with your purpose. Make sure that you are always working towards that purpose with your short term and long term career goals. For example, if you are looking for employment, even during this tough job market when opportunities are limited, pursue only those professional opportunities that are consistent with your career ambitions. Or, if you are looking for a promotion with your current employer, make sure that you’re identifying opportunities both within and outside of the office that will position you for that promotion – for example, pitching innovative responses to office assignments or joining a professional organization.

Two, you need to have a mentor and be a mentor. You should adopt a couple of individuals who are established in your field to serve as a mentor. In addition to advising on career next steps, these mentors can serve as references and even potential employers. You should also allow yourself to be adopted by a couple of professionals that are junior to you. Though demanding office schedules and other commitments may have you shy away from any mentoring responsibilities, you might be surprised to find that you can learn and grow tremendously from mentoring. I know that I have grown from the instances in which I have shared my insight as an attorney and policy professional during just a 30-minute informational interview. So, the next time a junior professional asks you for an informational interview, you should say “yes.”

And three, you need to get out there and network. We would like to think that our hard work and professional accomplishments are enough to get us recognized for the next great opportunity, but that is not the case. Relationship building is key to getting hard work and accomplishments noticed. Also, you need to let those who are in your network know exactly what you want. If you are ready to pursue a new opportunity or want someone to serve as a reference, that needs to be conveyed. You can have great relationships, resources, and contacts, but if they don’t know how they can be helpful to you, then you may find yourself stagnant professionally.

Q: I’m sure that you’ve learned many lessons throughout your career. What is something that you wish somebody had told you regarding career and professional development?

Prior to moving to Washington, DC and embarking on a legal career on Capitol Hill, I wish that someone would have told me that networking is key to career and professional development. I can’t emphasize it enough. In many cities, networking is key to building the relationships that are necessary to start and advance your career, but I think that this is especially true in Washington, DC. For those looking to establish a career in policy and politics, the applicant pool for most every position consists of individuals that are bright, talented, and have the requisite degrees. It’s the relationships that you’ve established through networking that can set you apart from the rest of the pool to get your resume to the top of the pile or a first interview.

I also want to point out that networking doesn’t have to be the formal, rigid activity that it’s often depicted as; it can be enjoyable and genuine. Take some time to truly identify your professional, as well as personal, ambitions so that you can select networking events that are consistent with those objectives. This allows you to be in environments and form relationships that are genuinely of interest to you. Also, remember that networking can occur anywhere and with anyone. So, in addition to the traditional reception, you can network at the gym. It never hurts to be the best you, particularly when the person on the treadmill next to you can help you get your next job.