As part of Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color initiative, we interviewed Jamila Jean, VP & Assistant General Counsel in Enterprise Compliance at Thomson Reuters, on what she learned at the Corporate Counsel Women of Color (CCWC) conference, held recently in New York. In the interview, Jean talks about how the conference is a great venue to strengthen client connections and for any rising legal star to learn about leadership and different workplace experiences that he or she needs to know as a leader.
What’s the best part of the CCWC conference for you personally?
Jamila Jean: I have been to this conference many times, and one of the reasons that I return again and again is because I leave feeling rejuvenated and inspired. There is so much energy that you get from the conference, and I think part of the reason is that there are a lot of women there who are very highly accomplished, very well respected, and very often one of the few women of color at their workplace.
Being in a room with 1,300 women, who are all accomplishing amazing things and who all have a spirit of forward movement, mentoring, and partnership is really fantastic.
What are the specific tactics or take-aways from this year that revealed themselves in a new way to you?
One of the most powerful take-aways came from Carla Harris, who is one of the most influential and powerful women on Wall Street. Harris discussed career advancement in terms of “relationship currency” versus “performance currency”; and specified that “performance currency” is more important at the beginning of one’s career, and “relationship currency” emerges to be more important for advancement at the later stages of one’s career.
Another key theme was mentioned by Patricia Brown Holmes, the first black woman to become managing partner of a national law firm, at Riley Safer, Holmes & Cancila. Holmes discussed her career in terms of a “tortoise on a lamppost” in that she did not get up there by herself, and she cannot get down by herself. This is true for all of us, she said.
Two additional big take-aways for me were the influencing and presentation skills mentioned during the general counsel roundtable. Laureen Seeger, general counsel at American Express, discussed the importance of having strong influencing skills as you advance in-house. Excellent lawyering skills are “table stakes” expectations now and serve as the foundation for success for in-house attorneys at more junior levels. As one moves up, the influencing skills and being seen as a leader within the corporate legal department and within the corporation overall are key ingredients for advancement.
Regarding presentation skills, Tim Murphy, general counsel from Mastercard, discussed how to be an excellent presenter. This take-away resonated with me because I definitely spent a lot of my time presenting to people and doing that effectively. There is an art to learning how to give information to executives — you have be able to do it in a concise way, and then balance it with digging into the topics they may have questions about.
What challenges for women of color were discussed at the conference?
Many of the challenges that were discussed fall under the umbrella of unconscious bias, which is something that is talked about a lot in diversity and inclusion work these days. For example, one particular study showed that 80% of women lawyers said that at some point they had been mistaken for someone else in a different role, such as a secretary or paralegal. That is not to say that those are not honorable roles, however, it says a lot about what people think a lawyer looks like, and they don’t think it looks like a woman apparently.
On the flip side, not one single man reported having that experience, and I thought that was pretty stark. I have my own personal experience — I was mistakenly assumed to be the court reporter when I was the lead attorney taking depositions two days in a row at the same firm at two difference offices.
In your view, who should attend the CCWC conference in the future?
The CCWC conference is valuable beyond attorneys who are women of color. For example, a lot of career strategies that are discussed also apply outside of the legal profession.
I also think that expanding the invitation to anyone who is interested being an ally to women of color in the legal field is crucial. To have a white man who is a senior person in their legal department or a law firm partner see that those attending this conference include all your clients — those who have the authority to make a decision on who get their business — is really powerful.