March 8, 2016
In the beginning of my career, I was inundated with the message that attorneys of color did not remain at firms for long. That message, repeated ad infinitum (and often with inadequate proposed solutions), became an internal chorus—a mantra that there was no place for me in the often homogenous culture of “Big Law.” Never was that myth proven more untrue than when I met Dionysia Johnson-Massie. At the time, I was making the critical decision to transition to a new firm, Littler Mendelson. Dionysia was a shareholder in Littler’s Atlanta office, a member of firm management, and a well-known and passionate advocate for her clients. She was everything the mantra of minority attorney attrition told me I could not be. But through personal commitment, a foundation of trust, and a substantial amount of hard work, we are changing that narrative together.
From a Shareholder’s Perspective:
There are at least two things that I know about “Big Law”: the vast majority of lawyers work extremely hard – and long hours – to deliver positive results for our clients, and female lawyers, including particularly women of color, face unique challenges on the pathway to delivering those successful outcomes. Navigating such challenges requires being both conscious of their existence and deliberate about creating solutions yielding measurable, positive outcomes. In short, creating a culture of inclusion – which acknowledges and effectively addresses these challenges – requires courageous leadership.
Shella and I graduated from law school nearly 15 years apart. Our initial stories are parallel. We saw no examples of women of color in leadership roles in our first law firm experiences. None. During the nearly 15 years separating our law school graduation dates, however, I eventually worked with other firm leaders to create – and co-chair – our Diversity & Inclusion Council and Women’s Leadership Initiative where we learned to have courageous conversations about the lack of women in certain leadership roles, the impact of that absence and the challenges uniquely facing many women throughout our legal careers. We also began discussing unique issues impacting women of color, including instances where some decision-makers had no experiences working with women of color either as lead litigators or as thought leaders.
These courageous conversations contributed to creating specific career and leadership developmental opportunities for talented lawyers – like Shella – to thrive. I am invested in Shella’s success not only because she is an extraordinary talent and an excellent lawyer, but also because she is worthy of investment. Owning my commitment to Shella and her career advancement – right from the start of her Littler career – was pivotal. It was important to me to ensure she had meaningful work opportunities, that I championed her skills and abilities and positioned her favorably for other key opportunities within our firm. Shella’s natural abilities and talents launched her impressive career from there.
A Joint Commitment
We have a successful mentoring and championing relationship because we are our authentic selves with each other and are driven to achieve excellence. We also share a “can do” attitude that candidly acknowledges challenges, but looks for solutions – not just for ourselves, but for others. It is our hope that our success in this area creates a counter narrative to that often-repeated mantra that female lawyers of color do not stay in Big Law long and rarely become leaders there. We certainly are committed to changing that narrative together.