Sage Career Wisdom for Attorneys of Color from Derek Davis: “Risk More… Care More… Dream Bigger… Expect More” (Part 1)

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As part of the Legal Executive Institute’s launch of the Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color initiative, we spoke with Derek Davis, Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession and former shareholder at Greenberg Traurig.  He continues to practice law as a licensed attorney in the State of New York and The Commonwealth of Massachusetts in addition to his role at Harvard.  Davis in part one of this interview discussed with us his trajectory to a successful legal career.

Legal Executive Institute: You’ve mentioned that you were fortunate to benefit from a progressive and collaborative experience in the 1980s and that there was a lot of collaboration then among the law firms in Boston to hire, retain, and promote lawyers of color. So can you tell me about that and, from your perspective, what made it unique relative to similar collaborative efforts that are happening now?

Derek Davis: Back in the ’80s, there was an organization called the Boston Law Firm Group and it was composed, by and large, of some of the city’s largest law firms. Within that organization, hiring partner chairs and managing partners believed that there had to be a change in the composure and the culture within our law firms to ensure the future success of the legal profession. They concluded that the way to do that was to increase the pipeline, not just recruiting on campus, but to get more law students of color thinking about law firms as a goal at an earlier stage in their legal career or legal educational career.

Very early on — I entered law school in 1986 at Boston University — in the second semester of my very first year, I was an intern  in a Minority Internship Program, which, in and of itself, seemed harmless. It was not — it was somewhat controversial because after all, something different and special was being done for one segment of the law student population.


Derek Davis

I was very fortunate to have grown up in a progressive firm initially and in an entrepreneurial firm later on that looked at the individual’s performance and work. I am a tenacious and persistent person, and sought feedback regularly. When it was given to me, I focused on learning from the feedback to grow and not taking it personally.

 


Boston’s law firms had the courage and commitment to create a program by which one and two Ls, could work within a large law firm during the academic school year for up to 20 hours a week. The controversial part was that law firms still had to go onto campus and recruit in the normal course, in accordance with the rules. It gave students of color almost a safe space within which they could go into these large firms, which I would suspect back in the early 1980s was somewhat unfamiliar to them. For the most part, minority students in the ‘80s didn’t have the vast access to the legal community and the corporate legal structure that they do today. This program was introduced at an early part of my educational journey and gave me a comfort level to working in a large firm without the pressure of being evaluated for hire.

At the end of the program each semester that I would intern, I gained some confidence and knowledge about the sophistication and complexity of the large corporate and law firm environments. The internship gave me more confidence going into my summer associate program where I knew I was competing for an opportunity.

Legal Executive Institute: Now I’d like to turn to your career specifically, and ask you about what were the pivotal moments that pointed to your promotion to partner and your ability to bring in clients. Can you tell us about how you approached that and what actions you specifically took to build out your book of business?

Derek Davis: I started in 1989, and developing as an associate, I could hone my skills and have more time to grow within the law firm than I think associates do today.

The pivotal moment came when I realized as an associate that the “real” client was the partner I was serving or whoever was directing me about the product for the client. I also realized that the client’s product was going to be evaluated by my initial client — the partner. My goal for doing great work came when my work was sent to the client without any edits or changes.


Law firms fancy themselves as meritocracies, just like law schools do, and by and large, they are. But you can’t control some of the variables. What changes is what happens within the law firm once you get there.


I realized I was working for two bosses, and I developed the skills to provide the services to my internal partner and to my external client. In the period between my sixth and ninth years as an associate, I was getting repeat business from existing partners, which equates to getting new work from clients outside of the firm. I developed the “client skills” literally to provide a service not only to the internal partner I was working for but also to the external client. There’s no substitute and there’s never been, regardless of your race or gender, to doing great work.

Legal Executive Institute: What structural barriers did you need to overcome in your successful legal career?  

Derek Davis: Law firms fancy themselves as meritocracies, just like law schools do, and by and large, they are. But you can’t control some of the variables.

What changes is what happens within the law firm once you get there. If all things were equal, and you got the same work for the same people and you were being reviewed and evaluated based on your performance by the same set of criteria, I don’t think there would be any issue. Lawyers of color would be succeeding at the same rate as those who are not. What we can’t control for in any law firm are individual biases — or feelings or fits of culture among people.

That dynamic has changed — it didn’t exist when I was there. I was very fortunate to have grown up in a progressive firm initially and in an entrepreneurial firm later on that looked at the individual’s performance and work. I am a tenacious and persistent person, and sought feedback regularly. When it was given to me, I focused on learning from the feedback to grow and not taking it personally.

(In Part 2 of this interview, Derek Davis will discuss what a culture of inclusion looks like and the meta-forces challenging attorneys of color today.)