The Legal Executive Institute sat down with Kalel Dennis, a senior technology client manager in the Thomson Reuters law firm business, to discuss his career journey from a science major in undergrad to law school and now in transition to an innovation role within the legal industry. He also offers sage career wisdom for the next generation of leaders of color in the law.
Legal Executive Institute:Tells us about the pivotal moments in your career and what it taught you.
Kalel Dennis: I actually believe that I am currently going through a pivotal point in my career right now. Prior to this I would have said it was making the move from Account Management to the technology team. Right now I am transitioning from technology account management into more of an innovation role.
This was all started from some very sage advice I was given from someone more senior that I trusted. Her advice was to present an idea I had for a new position to someone who had the ability to make that happen. I took her advice, and although it has taken over two years, the new role is becoming more of a reality. This has to be one of the biggest changes I have undergone in my career. It is exciting and a little scary but is all about building my network and professional growth.
Tell us about what your role on the technology side of the business entails. What have you learned that could contribute to your success if you decided to practice law again?
Currently my role entails identifying projects that would be of benefit to both our company and to our clients. The projects are co-created and co-developed with our largest customers.
It is true that my undergraduate degree is in Biology, but I also have JD that I earned from Syracuse University College of Law. Both of these degrees have helped me in my current role in different ways. My science degree has helped me with my ability to identify an issue and work to a solution by thinking outside of the box. And my law degree has enabled me to better understand and relate to the issues that our largest law firm customers are experiencing.
My role in technology at Thomson Reuters so far has taken the best of all my education and personal hobbies to engage in work on some very important and creative projects. If I were to take a professional turn and practice law at this point, I would have the benefit of understanding the need to approach ideas from all angles. In addition, there are so many resources available to attorneys that I would take advantage of them to make my work more efficient and accurate.
How did you develop your network to help you navigate the challenges and transitions you have experienced in your legal career?
I would say that I have built my professional network by viewing everyone at the company as a coworker and collaborator. This has allowed me to be vocal and candid with people I interact with no matter their position in the company. This does not mean casual, flippant or disrespectful. It does mean that when the opportunity to provide an opinion arises, I can offer it in a clear, concise and direct way.
There are many times that people are afraid of saying the wrong thing and that leads them to say nothing. If you are confident in your opinion and can provide sound reasoning to support it, then you are prepared to have a conversation about strategy, retention or whatever topic it is.
My mentors and sponsors have been revealed to me through genuine interactions, and then active cultivation of the relationship. Checking in periodically, have lunch or a quick call to catch up, are all very important to any relationship.
One of my early mentors was a big help in transitioning into my legal career without even being a willing participant. He was the director of the biology department during my undergrad studies and was a true academic. He was whole heartedly invested in all of his students’ success, and thus, mine, until I told him my plans to go to law school. He was so against what the legal industry, in particular Patent Law, was doing to academia that he couldn’t forgive me for wanting to join those ranks.
Throughout my journey I have been motivated by the desire to prove someone’s negative expectations wrong; and his dissension was the motivation I needed at the time to enter law school. Moreover, while in law school as I learned the hard way that a scientific analysis was very different from a legal analysis, his negative outlook on my decision was still a strong motivation for me to push through and complete my studies. Sometimes, the naysayers are the biggest motivators!
You are the global co-chair for the Thomson Reuters Black Employee Network as a volunteer leader. How has this role contributed to your success?
This role has been and continues to be a real labor of love. I seem to gravitate to these types of roles, but this current experience has been tremendous. Being the Co-Chair has given me exposure to senior executives within the company. This exposure is to discuss topics that are difficult, but necessary.
These types of interactions have given me more confidence for when I am preparing a meeting with a CIO, CTO or CKO of a firm that I have never met. I feel better prepared, because the things I am going to discuss with these customers are not as difficult as those with our senior leaders, so I know that I am more than capable. This role has also helped prepare me to plan and run meetings or events for hundreds of people. Although I have never really had an issue speaking to crowds, this role has tested the boundaries of my comfort level with public speaking.
I think the opportunity to help the company improve its diversity initiatives, the ability to provide relevant and helpful programs for my coworkers, and to grow professionally through the exposure and connections I make, is all a testament to why everyone should get involved with an affinity group.
If you had to give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? And what are the top 3 actions you would recommend?
I would give my younger self the advice I was given about two years ago, but I would do it about five years earlier. There are times to wait for opportunity to knock, but there are also times when you need to open the door and seek out opportunity. If you are able and ready to work for a new role then you need to put the wheels in motion to do so.
As for actions I would recommend:
- Be vocal — There are going to be decisions made when you are not at the table; and if your name is mentioned, you want everyone to have their own positive experience to draw from. Sharing your ideas and showing others that you are a focused on the success of the business is a great way to win advocates.
- Get involved — Working with an affinity or business resource group is not just giving of your time. You will receive tremendous returns in the form of exposure, professional development and a personal satisfaction knowing that you actively helped to make your company a better place.
- Find balance — You need time away from work in order to be your best self at work. I am able to do my best work when my personal life is running smoothly. I have also found that one of the major ways to cause waves at home is to bring too much of my work home with me. That doesn’t just mean reports and workload, but also the amount of time that I am not engaged with my family because I am thinking about work. Finding the right balance for yourself is key to being a more productive and active driver of your professional development.