You spearhead Barnes & Thornburg’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as firm diversity partner and last month received the 2021 ADL (Anti-Defamation League) Midwest Women of Achievement Award. What is diversity in today’s diverse world and what are some things you do in your position?
Diversity yesterday and today simply means “difference.” In today’s world “difference” abounds and our consciousness regarding same is top of mind perhaps more than ever before. My work at its core affords me the opportunity day in and day out, to implement strategies and programming designed to cultivate an environment where all can thrive and advance. The legal profession is historically non-diverse. What we are trying to do at Barnes & Thornburg is to change that narrative. We are different and such is by design.
How did you choose law for your career? Did you see injustice growing up or have a role model in that field?
I would love to say that I was drawn to the law to rid the world of injustice, but such would be a complete falsehood. There were no lawyers in my family and I really do not recall any specific exposure to the legal profession. I certainly witnessed injustice growing up as I believe it is part of the Black experience. But such did not birth my desire to practice law. Instead, I just knew that I wanted to be a lawyer as far back as elementary school. I actually recall saying as much in my first grade yearbook. As an adult, I understand concepts like purpose and one’s assignment so me choosing the legal profession makes perfect sense to me now. But then (when I was a little girl), I just knew becoming a lawyer called to me. I had no idea what a lawyer did or even where lawyers worked. I just knew that I was going to be one and thus did everything I could to make that a reality.
You interned at Lincoln National Corp. as a law intern before going to law school. How did an internship shape your ideas for a career?
I will be forever grateful to Lincoln National Corporation and to the General Counsel at the time, Jack Hunter. Indeed, my story would have been very different had I not had the experiences I did at Lincoln. There I got my first glimpse of what practicing law looks like. It’s my understanding that before me, they had never had an intern in the legal department so they did not really know what to do with me. Mr. Hunter, though, gave me a shot. It meant everything to me to be around real lawyers. Moreover, through my time at Lincoln I learned invaluable lessons about presence in this profession and what hard work looks like. While I ultimately chose a career at Barnes & Thornburg, Lincoln deserves so much credit for the professional I have become.
You’ve spent your entire 25-year legal career at Barnes & Thornburg. What made that a good fit for you and how does it keep meeting your challenges?
I chose Barnes & Thornburg back in 1996 because I felt that I would be challenged and afforded every opportunity to grow into the best lawyer – the best professional I could be. I have stayed because such remains the case to date. Indeed, if I had to do it all over again I would choose Barnes & Thornburg. No organization is perfect. The practice of law is incredibly hard and at times, I have wanted to quit. But I follow peace in my decision-making. I’ve stayed because I have a peace about doing so. At my core, I am moved by building people. I get to do that every day in my role at Barnes & Thornburg. That’s worth continuing to show up.
You became the first Black female to make equity partner at the firm. What responsibilities does that entail?
There are no unique responsibilities for me as a Black female equity partner. There are, though, unique burdens. Trailblazing only sounds good in articles and bios. In reality, it’s lonely, often heavy and if not careful, belief altering. I’m grateful for my faith. And I thank God for my mother. Indeed, this piece should really be about her. She’s the real impressive one. Hailing from the deep-South peppered in her day with that “whites only, colored only” type “equality” and left to raise my brother and me on her own without support from anyone, my mother somehow managed to send us both to college (me to law school, of course), all the while modeling excellence, boldness, strength and kindness for me. My mom taught me how to stand – how to survive, no matter what. I would not be here – you would not be talking to me — without her training. So maybe the better answer to this question is as follows: My responsibility as the first Black female equity partner (or really in any space I am privileged to hold), is to remember my upbringing.
What’s one thing that companies should look at in terms of diversity at their workplaces?
Again, diversity just means difference. So the goal must go beyond simply “butts in seats” if an organization is truly committed to change on the diversity, equity and inclusion front. Indeed (and to that end), equity and inclusion must each be a focal point as well. Companies have to look inward and decide who they want to be. If diversity, equity and inclusion are indeed business imperatives then such should be reflected in every aspect of the organization’s decision-making. At Barnes & Thornburg, our commitment to change is grounded by three pillars: Sponsorship, Integration and Culture. The Integration pillar is the point I am making here. For us, Integration means working to ensure that the business of the firm is synonymous with the business, if you will, of diversity, equity and inclusion. If diversity, equity and inclusion are only considered when there is an issue or an inquiry from a client, then I dare say the organization is merely interested in change and not committed to it. The latter results in transformation while the former merely begets box-checking. So what’s one thing companies should look at in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace? Whether they are interested vs. committed to change.
What activities do you do outside the office in terms of mentoring and volunteering?
I am a consummate volunteer and have served on a number of boards (or otherwise volunteered), to discharge this passion. I am also the creator of an independent personal and professional development platform called “REIGN.” Through REIGN, I get to leverage my 25+ years as a professional to point people to their greatness. It’s my absolute favorite thing to do. It’s why I am here.
What else would you like to tell people?
You’re enough! I spent way too much of my life unaware of this truth and as such, playing small. There is no life in it. And it’s dishonorable to the unrepeatable masterpiece that you are. So settle that you are enough which means you are “sufficient,” “competent,” “ample,” “unlimited,” “all right already” – that last one is my favorite. Trust me, doing so will change your life.