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Top Black Lawyers Share Advice with Young Attorneys of Color

April 4, 2017, 9:05 PM

As hundreds of attorneys convened in downtown Chicago last week for the National Summit of Black Women Lawyers, the focus was on the future: mentoring and supporting the next generation of black women entering the legal profession.

As a group, black women remain disproportionately underrepresented in Big Law. According to a January report by the National Association for Law Placement, the number of black women lawyers at law firms has remained essentially unchanged even as other groups have seen modest gains.

Hosted by the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago (BWLA) in honor of the organization’s 30th anniversary, the national summit brought together experienced litigators, corporate lawyers, and general counsel to share their expertise with each other and the young women hoping to follow in their footsteps. Big Law Business caught up with a few of these attorneys at the top of their fields to ask them what advice they have for their younger peers:

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Michelle Wimes, Director of Professional Development and Inclusion at Ogletree Deakins

Find a Mentor

“A mentor would be somebody who would share with you what works in that environment, what practice group is the best to get into, and, when you’re in that practice group, who’s the relationship shareholder you should be working for. I also think you need to have a mentor outside of the firm who can help you have perspective as to what’s happening within the firm. Sometimes we get so mired in our own environments that it’s hard to look at objectively. And ultimately you’re going to need to have a sponsor. You need someone who’s willing to put their credibility on the line for you, when it comes to, is she doing good work, does she deserve a raise, does she deserve to move to the next level to become partner? Typically, you want somebody who’s promoting you when you’re not in the room.”

Support Other Women

“In terms of implicit bias, you have to recognize that we all have biases, and the culture is going to be permeated by bias because everybody has it. You have to recognize that it’s there and then figure out strategies to interrupt the bias. For instance, supporting other women. If people are talking badly about someone, saying she’s too aggressive or being too assertive, you might want to jump in and say, ‘Yeah she can be assertive but I think that’s an appropriate way to be given what’s at hand in this particular case or matter.’ … Be a person that’s willing to say something and help navigate the situation.”

Move On When Necessary

“If you’re in a situation where 75 percent of your work is coming from someone, and they’re marking you up, and they’re not giving you feedback, it may be a situation where it’s time to move on, and not necessarily move away from that firm but move to another practice group that you can work with, another partner who values your work, thinks you’re doing good work, is giving you more work, and is giving you the constructive feedback that you need to grow and improve and learn and develop. … It wasn’t unusual when I was coming up through the ranks to move practice groups.”

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Nicole Duckett Fricke, General Counsel and VP of the LA Clippers

Hone Your Skills

“The most important thing is to be really good at what you do. From the very beginning of your career, that’s what you need to be focusing on. Anything you can do to be the best associate, or the best young lawyer wherever you are. Your writing skills, your argument skills if you’re a litigator, your business skills if you’re in-house. Scout out some people in the company who are really smart and know what they’re doing and say, ‘Hey, can you give me some more motions to work on so I can be a better writer, or more depositions.’”

Commit Yourself to the Work

“You have to be willing to throw yourself into your work and tell yourself it’s about the marathon and not the sprint.”

Build Relationships

“As early on as possible, you want to start founding some good relationships, whether it’s at your company or at your firm, or outside. I recommend both. If you are going to transition into another job, you do need somebody outside of the place you work to help with that. Also, a lot of times somebody at your firm will need a contact and if you can be the person to provide that contact, you’re adding value.”

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Judge Ann Claire Williams of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

Don’t Carry a Chip on Your Shoulder

“A lot of times, for women and people of color, we’re not in the room when the decisions are made, where the power is. So somebody who’s got the power has to know about you. Then I think... you have to believe in yourself, you have to have confidence. In believing in yourself, you cannot let every -ism rest on your shoulder. If you carry a chip on your shoulder all the time, then everything you see is going to be through the lens of the chip. You have to have confidence and when people are prejudiced against you, or biased, and you know it and you see it, and we can feel it. You can’t let that get you down.”

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Pamela Meanes, Partner at Thompson Coburn

Treat Partners Like Clients

“If you are in a major law firm, you want to find an individual who is connected to power who has a book of business who will be able to not just give you an assignment but place you on cases, and give you leadership roles on those cases. And then when you get the opportunity on that case, it is imperative that you produce quality work, because at the end of the day, a client does not want to pay to train you. A client wants results. … And as a younger associate, you must treat the partners you work with as your clients, and every interview you do with them is your memo. Make sure it’s good.”

Don’t Always Take Criticism as Discrimination

“You have to make sure that you are balanced and realistic in your view. Sometimes, as a person of color, we see everything through our lenses, and it is difficult not to say sometimes, ‘It ain’t got nothing to do with your color.’ The best example I had was with my mentor — I struggled with writing at the beginning of my career. I would get so angry and I would call my mother and I’d say, ‘Why is she always critiquing me? I just don’t get this. She doesn’t like me and she has something against black people.’ And my momma said, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, maybe your writing is bad.’ She said, ‘Why not, instead of looking at criticism as a ding against you, look at it as an opportunity to improve. Maybe there is room to improve.’ I think as associates, as partners, we all have to learn that we’re not perfect, and there is room to improve. And there is room for some critique that is correct. I do find that sometimes as an associate of color, we find it difficult to own where we need to grow. And it’s easy for us to say sometimes that gender or race played a part … [but] it dilutes the time when we need to point out that it’s really happening.”

Stick With It

“In order for women, African-American, white women, Asian women, Hispanic women, in order for us to make an impact in the legal field, and in big law firms, we have to stay. So I want to encourage people to say, it is hard, it is difficult, but it is possible. And the only way we change the seats at the table is to remain in the room.”

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Sharon Jones, President and CEO of Jones Diversity

Join an Affinity Group

“Women’s groups and women’s committees are basically affinity groups, and affinity groups have a lot of value for individuals. I encourage people to join them. It reduces isolation. You have the opportunity to create informal mentoring relationships there. You might find a sponsor in an affinity group. You use them when you’re a smaller number in a larger mass. It helps to make you feel empowered. They’re also used for professional development. There’s a certain type of training that is implemented in affinity groups, and you don’t want to be the one who’s not getting it because you refuse to participate.”

Promote Yourself

“One of the rules for success in male-dominated organizations, or white male-dominated organizations, is self-promotion. You need to think about how to put your best foot forward, and part of that is writing your own narrative. Create a story, something that you want people to say about you. Like, ‘I want to know this particular area of the law better than anybody else in my firm’ or ‘I want to be viewed as a go-to.’ You create that narrative and then you make sure that you’re doing things consistent with that narrative at all times.”

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Joseph McCoy, managing partner of Bryan Cave’s Chicago office

Rely on Other Associates When Needed

“A lot of times for lawyers of color and women, you don’t get two times to not do the best job. And that’s subjective, but it is what it is. So do the best possible job you can. That means use your resources. A lot of times there are senior associates, there are other lawyers who have worked with these partners, there are other partners that you can go to as a resource when you’re doing a project to be a check and balance before you submit something to the person you’re working for.”

Utilize Outside Resources

“I was just talking to a young lady who was saying the demographic at her firm is not great for black women, and I was saying that’s why BWLA and other organizations, other people, are so important. Because you won’t always find a certain demographic within your institution. I think it’s incumbent on us to utilize these resources to be supportive, to help us learn and help us understand and translate some things that happen in the organization, sometimes to build us back up, to re-energize us. You’re not always going to get that within your organization.”

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