Jill Louis, Partner in the Corporate practice at K&L Gates and a new member of the advisory board of the Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color (NGL: ALC) originally thought she would follow in her mother’s footsteps as a journalist, so she majored in broadcast journalism at Howard University.
No one in her family was a lawyer, but looking back, perhaps she had lawyering in her blood because she naturally advocated for people. Moreover, the legal restrictions on her parents’ ability to seek higher education left an impression on her. Her father was not allowed to attend medical school in his home state of Louisiana because he was an African American. He traveled to distant Washington, D.C. to attend Howard University, which was a hardship for his rural family. Legal segregation prevented her mother from attending the University of Alabama, but she also persisted and earned her way to an undergraduate degree as a Ford Fellow at Fisk University in Nashville.
Louis chose corporate law intentionally because she did not see many African-American women in the practice when she began 28 years ago. She saw excellent African-American trial and civil rights lawyers, but she felt that there were not many people in the African-American community who had a real seat at the table in matters of the economy and the commercial aspects of business. Louis said she “enjoys thinking about how business works and all the interplays of people and behaviors.” Her decision ultimately enabled her to journey through her career from a law firm to an in-house lawyer for 16 years and, then return to big law as a partner.
When Louis first started practicing, there was not many lawyers of color throughout the profession like she sees today. “Our pipeline is just starting to achieve that critical mass that I think is so important,” she says. “And our full participation in the profession is nothing short of economic justice. Now, it is really all about using and empowering our networks to help us achieve equity — and equity leads to a better world for all.”
Professional and Personal Support Networks Are Critical to Success
One of the key actions that Louis has made a priority throughout her career is investing in her network. Louis credits much of her success to key individuals who have mentored her over the years. She has had a client and mentor for more than 20 years, and she has benefited from his changing roles and advancement, serving as his outside counsel a few times and as his in-house counsel for three different organizations in which he was either a CEO or a board member. In particular, the relationship helped her hone her skills as a business advisor and develop her commercial-focused mindset.
Louis also credits her success to having a support structure in the form of her husband and partner. As a lawyer by training also, he understands the demands of her job and was a true partner in raising their children as active parents.
“Our full participation in the profession is nothing short of economic justice. Now, it is really all about using and empowering our networks to help us achieve equity — and equity leads to a better world for all.”
Career Guidance to Next Gen Lawyers of Color
Louis shared some career advice she’d offer to lawyers of color:
Be Curious and Problem Solve— When advising people on how to think about their own career journeys, Louis says it’s important to think in terms of learning to problem solve. “Learn to think critically,” she says. “Be comfortable with really exploring and analyzing an issue. Don’t come at something with a preconceived notion. If you can openly explore it, you can develop a better route to a good end-result.”
Manage Up — “I would advise younger professionals who don’t feel like they have sponsor yet, to not feel limited in who they can look to in order to fill that role,” she says. “You need to have as many allies and sponsors as possible.” It’s critical to seek that person out and determine how they can become your sponsor, Louis adds. “Become their ‘go-to’ person because by doing so, you are helping them to win and that will continue to engage them to act on your behalf as well,” she says, adding that we all have the responsibility to try to make some things happen in our own lives.
Guidance to Legal Employers: The Need for More “Die-Hard” Sponsors and More Context in Giving Feedback
Louis also shared some advice she’d give to legal employers:
Die-hard Sponsorship — When Louis talks about obstacles to advancement for lawyers of color, she puts it simply: “You’re either in your own way or someone hasn’t paved enough of a way for you.” And she believes sponsorship is what gets you ahead.
“Lack of sponsors is the real obstacle and is the biggest issue for otherwise capable people,” Louis explains. “I do not find enough people who are out there willing to be die-hard sponsors.” The pivotal moments for advancement are found in the “expressions of confidence in the right place and at the right time that really help people move forward,” she notes.
“As an advisory board member of NGL: ALC, we have to pave a way and then enable early career lawyers of color to excel,” she insists.
For instance, Louis remembers when her own experience with sponsorship made a profound difference in her career. “I think about the difference it made to work under a GC who was intentional about giving me great assignments and then talking up my work,” she says. “I was the same person with all the same capabilities and doing largely the same work before he became the GC. After he became the GC, he decided that I should be doing the higher impact work based on my abilities and that he was going to speak up and recognize my work in executive circles.”
When that happened, Louis says she was suddenly receiving awards, bonuses, and promotions. “People acted like I had become some new person,” she remembers. “However, I was working in the way I always had and doing much of the same stuff. The difference was that finally, somebody had decided that they were going to talk about it. He knew it would matter.”
Give Contextual, Real-Time Feedback — As far as the important issue of giving feedback is concerned, Louis states that real-time feedback is best. Indeed, providing context and constructive feedback to lawyers of color and first generation lawyers in real time is critical to their advancement.
“I want my associates to be self-aware of their development,” she explains. “Therefore, I explain why they are doing the work that they are doing and how it is foundational to their next steps in development. I also provide the context of their assignments in terms of what the client is going to want because of the dynamics that the client is facing.”
What she doesn’t do, Louis notes, is simply say, ‘Hey, that document needs to be turned in to me by tomorrow!’ Instead, she’ll say, ‘Let me tell you what the client is facing so you know why we need to provide our work product in a certain amount of time.’
Too often, people assume that lawyers of color or first-generation lawyers are going to automatically understand the ‘why’ part of the equation as well as the unwritten business norms even if they have no background in the area, Louis says. “Giving people context is key,” she says.