Creighton Law alumnae share personal insight on leadership
Creighton University School of Law graduated its first woman, Bertha Schick, in 1916, at a time when women in law were a rarity. More than a hundred years later, women and men equally fill the seats in the classrooms and can go onto rewarding careers. As women have become increasingly present in law school, they are also earning more in varied top professional positions. Female graduates of Creighton Law are at the helm in many industries, including healthcare, the U.S. military, state supreme courts, college administration, national banks and local government.
Christina Zorn, JD’98, is the chief administrative officer of Mayo Clinic, guiding the 73,000-employee healthcare team of the country’s top hospital for the past six years, as ranked in U.S. News & World Report’s Best Hospitals guide. Sarah Xiao Qian Mu, JD’10, a first-generation immigrant, is the founder and partner at Law Offices of Sarah Xiao Qian Mu. In 2018, Mu was named as one of the 10 best immigration attorneys in California.
Zorn and Mu are among the thousands of law alumnae making an impact. Creighton Lawyer spoke with a handful of Creighton law graduates about their views on leadership.
Strive to Stand Out
In 2021, Tressa Alioth, BSBA’95, JD’97, was named the first Black female district court judge in Nebraska — an achievement she finds deserving, humbling and overdue in the 21st century. “Many co-workers have said that you deserve this and I’m always of the mindset that we deserve this,” she says. The appointment is further proof of her leadership mentality of, “No matter if you’re female, African American, you come from poverty, you can still do all these things you set out to do and be a leader to those coming up after you,” Alioth says. “Because there were those who came before me who pushed me to say, yes, you can do this.”
In February, in recognition of her excellence, perseverance and dedication, Alioth received the Pittman Award, which honors the legacy of Judge Elizabeth D. Pittman, BS’47, JD’48, the first Black woman to graduate from Creighton’s School of Law and the first Black person and the first woman to be appointed as a judge in Nebraska.
For Alioth, the path to good leadership requires learning from mentors, support from others, hard work and the self-confidence to stand out. “I come from a background [in which] where I’m sitting today would not have been thought possible,” she says. “But you don’t let that stop you. If you put forth all the effort and carry yourself in a way that you deem ethical and respectable, that will go a long way and if nothing else you’re being true to yourself.”
Alioth was previously a prosecutor for the Douglas County Attorney’s Office, where for 26 years she worked in the civil, juvenile, domestic violence and felony divisions. She says she tries to make the courtroom experience welcoming to people of all walks of life. “Whether resolution comes out in their favor or not, in my courtroom you know ‘she heard me, and I was respected and that the law applied to me and that the law worked.’”
Beyond the bench, Alioth is actively involved in her community. She is on the leadership team of Love Church and serves on the board of directors of Room for Roots, a Christian-based mentoring program for underserved and at-risk women and girls.
“For me, it’s always been, ‘Don’t sit where people tell you you’re supposed to sit,’” says Alioth. “‘Strive to be where you know you can be.’”
Listen to Everyone
Like every state in the nation battling the effects of COVID-19, New Mexico faced increased housing issues: homelessness, rising rents, evictions. And like all states, New Mexico received funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to aid in economic recovery, but it was not enough, says C. Shannon Bacon, BA’93, JD’97, who was elected chief justice of the state’s supreme court in April.
“The magic power of a justice, especially a chief justice, is the power to convene the people,” she says.
Bacon assembled a task force of members from courts and state agencies as well as property owners, housing advocates, legal service providers and local officials, and in February, the New Mexico Supreme Court launched the Eviction Prevention and Diversion Program to keep people in their homes and compensate landlords.
“As of a couple of weeks ago, we’ve distributed $160 million in eviction funding, that has assisted more than 45,000 households,” she says.
In August, the Biden Administration invited Bacon to a virtual summit to speak about the program as a model of court-led eviction reform. She points to collaboration and clear vision as key elements to making such a program a success, as well as to being a good leader.
“Being willing to walk the walk that you’re asking other people to do. Listen to all layers of your organization, not just the people who are in positions of power,” says Bacon. “I spend a lot of time talking to employees throughout the judicial system to understand what their experience is like. That assists me in developing and driving policy.”
For nearly a decade, Bacon served as a judge on the Second Judicial District Court presiding over cases spanning adult guardianship and conservatorship cases, real estate and contract disputes, election issues and civil litigation.
She is passionate about social justice issues, and her career reflects putting that passion into action to help individuals who cannot afford legal services.
“Anybody with the ability to go to law school, we are people who are in privileged positions — both in terms of education and economics, and because of that,” says Bacon, “I feel it’s incumbent on me to use and share that with other people who don’t have that same opportunity.
“It definitely stems from that ethos of a Jesuit education. Part of your professional world has to be ‘other’ oriented.”
Meet People Where They Are
Maj. Gen. Cassie Strom, JD’82, is a trailblazer. In a distinguished 31-year career with the United States Air Force, she worked tirelessly to be a leader finding common ground. She retired in July 2015, but she is not one to rest on her laurels.
Much of Strom’s career was focused on nation-building. She was one of the first Air National Guard Judge Advocate Generals to deploy into Bosnia in support of Army Civil Affairs, and her work in peacekeeping exercises took her to countries around the globe. She is the first woman to be promoted to major general in the Air Force Judge Advocate Corps. Her honors include the Legion of Merit Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal and in recognition of her service to her country and communities, the 2016 School of Law Alumni Merit Award.
“I loved my career in the military — living and working overseas. The military opened many doors for me, and my retirement benefits put me in a position where I can help others,” says Strom. “People say, ‘thank you for your service’ and it’s appreciated, but we all can do more.”
Most of the year, Strom volunteers full time with veterans. She is co-chair for the Gateway Community Veterans Engagement Board and president of the Missouri Veterans Hall of Fame. She volunteers with St. Francis Community Services Veterans Advocacy Project, a legal assistance project she started in 2009, to connect homeless and low-income veterans with housing and employment benefits. She helps them get back on their feet with legal services and other support.
“First, I like to work alongside people. I’m not going to ask them to do things that I’m not willing to do myself,” Strom says of her down-to-earth leadership style. “Secondly, I try to respect people’s time. Third, you need to be able to listen.”
She credits that care for her community to her parents and to Creighton. “The ethical education was really valuable to me,” says the Omaha native. “And I like the Midwest. You get a more thoughtful view of the world from the middle.”
Standing before a chief justice can provoke a number of emotions, but Susan Christensen, JD’91, says she reacts in the only way she can: “I try to humanize what we do. I enjoy making a genuine connection with people through active listening. As a mom, as a wife, I carry that through being a judge, and I hope that eases their anxiety.”
Christensen was appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court in 2018, and in February 2020 she was selected as chief justice by members of the court. The Harlan, Iowa, native oversees about 1,700 employees in the Iowa Judicial Branch. “I’m faced with lots of different situations every day, and I like to think that approaching the situation with grace is my first option,” she says, drawing upon personal experience from her time as a law student.
While at Creighton, Christensen was also a mother to two children then a third during her third year — two more children followed after graduation — and she commuted every day from her hometown while her husband was in optometry school in Chicago.
When she asked to take a later morning course or, while pregnant, had to miss her only days of class ever, Creighton was there to help. “It was an acknowledgment that they cared about my personal life. They wanted me to succeed,” she says. “They were my leader, and I was asking permission to do something, and they showed grace to me.”
Since then, she has been paying it forward. She and Kelly Garcia, director of the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services, are currently visiting a dozen Iowa communities to address child welfare issues. “This is important as a leader,” says Christensen, “to look not only at your entity but consider how you are interacting with others and figure out ways to work together for the common good.”
Before Christensen’s appointment, Iowa had been the only state in the country without women currently serving on the court. The news received national attention, surprising Christensen. She did not see the moment as history-making; she was the third woman to serve on the seven-member court but the first female justice to join the court since 2011.
Then she started receiving letters and emails of support, as well as requests for selfies with young girls who were too young to remember the history, and Christensen realized the importance of being a positive role model. “‘Find the good and praise it,’ Alex Haley said. Start with that and you’ll go in the right direction,” she says. “If it makes little girls say, ‘I can do that too,’ I’m ok with being the poster child for women on the bench.”
Find the Connection
Working in public service is a career choice of the heart. Fresh out of law school, Lisa Andrus Hayan, JD’03, joined the Maricopa County (Phoenix) Attorney’s Office, where she worked in the sex crimes bureau prosecuting cases on the production and distribution of child pornography. The job was demanding and distressing, but a realized dream to be a voice for disadvantaged children.
“I’ve always wanted to watch out for others,” she says. “The opportunity to serve society is such an important assignment. It goes back to my Creighton roots.” In her third year at the School of Law, a service trip to the Dominican Republic with other students made a deep impression.
After eight years advocating for at-risk children as the deputy county attorney — earning Prosecutor of the Year recognition — Andrus moved on to spend more time with her then 18-month-old daughter. She applied her passion of helping people to leadership roles in technology as the chief operating officer at HyeTech, the start-up founded by her husband, Saro, in 2005.
Overseeing the hiring, benefits and other operations for the 100-plus-employee business, Andrus says she leads “with bumpers. It’s critical to be considerate and creative because what motivates one person may not motivate another. I’m motivated by working with people, solving problems. That’s why my law degree works, and with my background [working with children], I bring a gentle touch to leadership.”
Reflecting on her time at Creighton Law, Andrus remembers Jesuit values at the forefront of teaching by compassionate faculty. She repays that support by being an example for future generations. As chair of the School of Law Alumni Advisory Board, she committed to a challenge fund for Giving Day 2021, and in 2012, established the Lisa and Saro Hayan Scholarship in Public Service Law.
“You don’t want to always take; you have to give,” says Andrus. “I want to make sure that tradition is there for students going forward. “It’s important to be an attorney of service.”