The Lady Lawyer: Monica Parham

By Patricia Donkor

Happy New Year!  The hustle and bustle of the new year resolutions and goal setting is officially upon us!

Thus far, I have spent my legal career in government litigation positions.  However, so many of our Lady Lawyer readers work for law firms.  In a metropolis, like Washington, D.C., lawyers are ubiquitous.  I meet a new lawyer in just about every social setting that I am in.  However, most medium to large law firms, here and afar, still struggle with institutional barriers, such as race, class, gender, background, etc.  Women of color continue to be few and far in between in those spaces.   In my experience, the numbers, while not great, tend not to be as dire in the government.

When thinking about African American Lady Lawyers it’s important to recognize that we have the cumulative effect of multiple categories of otherness.  For one, we are women in a historically male dominated profession.  Second, we are black.  Then within those boxes, we each bring our own individualized set of circumstances such as being the first lawyer in our families, or even the first person to attend college.  This month, we will focus on the Lady Lawyers that become the one and only or one of a few in the medium and large law firm and dialogue about fitting in while remaining authentic to the various categories of you.  How can the Lady Lawyer assimilate without losing herself?

This month’s Lady Lawyer, Monica Parham, was the ideal person to explore these topics.  A year ago, this month, Monica founded her own Diversity, Inclusion, and Talent consulting firm.  Prior to establishing her consultation practice, Monica worked at Crowell and Moring LLP, a large international firm, for twenty-one years.  She began there as a Summer Associate.  She then worked as a full-time Associate and was promoted to Counsel.   After several years as Counsel, she served as Crowell and Moring’s Diversity Counsel (“D&I”).

PD: Hi Monica.  Tell me what your legal career looked like when you began?

MP: I originally began at Crowell and Moring as a summer associate while at Yale Law School.  When I graduated, I became the first black judicial law clerk in the United States District Court for Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division.  So, even before I got to the firm, I had a keen sense of being the one and only, the first.  I was familiar with being seen as representing a community broader than myself.

After my judicial clerkship, I returned to Crowell as an associate.  This was in 1994.  I was spilt between the commercial litigation and government contracts practice groups. When I began, there was literally no one that looked like me in the senior ranks of either group who had “come up through the ranks.”  I was the first Black women to specialize in Litigation at the Firm.

PD: What impact, if any, did that have on you?

MP: In hindsight, while I was focused on learning the substance, I didn’t fully realize the importance of relationships:  I wasn’t sure who my allies were or how to identify and approach potential mentors and sponsors.

PD: Were there any mistakes, looking back, that you made early on at the firm?

MP: It sounds trivial, but reflects the lack of insight about the “unwritten code” that exists at every organization and the importance of building relationships:  I made the mistake of initially calling people by their last names and it’s a firm where everyone is on a first name basis.  While I soon switched, the initial impression stuck – another powerful lesson.

PD: Why do you think you were outside of the mainstream with that?

MP: It’s interesting, I grew up in North Carolina, where you would approach people in positions of perceived authority or seniority by their last name. You would never go up to a sixty-year old man and say, “Hi Joe.”  Even my mother’s friends were “Miss Alice” to me.  So, I did what I was raised to do.  More senior attorneys saw that as cold and aloof and not picking up on the unwritten code of the firm.  I saw that as appropriately deferential.  So, it was misconstrued, and I had no sense of how it was being misconstrued until years later.

PD: How did you find out later?

MP: It came up a little during the context of reviews.  But, it came up, even more, years later when I switched over to D&I and senior firm leaders would say things like “You are nothing like what I perceived you to be.”  But, when you are 24-25-year-old women of color and going into a partner’s office and calling that person by his first name, particularly a he, with that gender dynamic, it’s a hard thing to do.  It is counterintuitive to how a lot of us are raised, but if it’s part of the unwritten rules and everyone is calling one another by their first name, you need to do the same thing.

PD:  So, you know this blog series is about self-care?  What would you say to a young associate of color that, taking from your example, is at a firm and thinks that because she wants to be taken seriously she has to pick professionalism over easy-going?  In other words, her mindset is that as a black woman she is held to a higher standard and must represent herself as a ‘lawyer’ always.

MP:  Well part of it comes down to emotional intelligence (EQ), picking up the cues from the environment in terms of how one presents and “represents” one’s self. As the saying goes in the diversity world, “Goldman [Sachs] isn’t Google” – they are both prestigious, high-functioning companies filled with very smart highly credentialed people, but the cultures are fundamentally different. Part of self-care is finding the support system that allows you to assess and navigate within the culture. Figure out – with your network of allies and mentors – what the dominant culture is and decide if that culture is something you are going to feel comfortable in and able to navigate without completely losing your authenticity.  If the culture is totally incongruent with the true you then it’s probably not going to work, particularly in the long-term.

PD: So, are we talking about changing yourself?  Who does one go to for feedback?  How does the associate know when they need to shift to adjust?

MP:  There is a difference between changing yourself, and adjusting to and navigating within your environment.  A necessary part of adjusting and navigating is finding your allies, mentors and sponsors (worthy of a totally separate conversation!).  One of the things to keep in mind is that these people, particularly on the internal professional side and at the sponsorship level, may not all look like you.  For one, there may not be anyone else in your space that looks like you.  Some of my allies, mentors and sponsors were and remain the people I least expected them to be:   a number were and are more senior, white, male partners.  They were not necessarily younger professionals, and they were not necessarily the women partners.  So, you never know what your ally is going to look like.   You also need an external network of allies and mentors.   That is where organizations like GWAC and the Women’s Bar Association really come in.  Particularly as a woman of color, you may need to have that network of people where you can say “I’m feeling really overwhelmed.  Have you had to deal with this?  I’m worried about losing my authenticity.  What do you do when you are having a meeting with an industrial client in the Midwest and I have natural hair?  Should I take my braids out?”  You need to have a safe space to have those conversations and not trivialize those conversations because they go to your authenticity, and you cannot have wellness and self-care or indeed ultimately flourish without it.

PD:  Do you think there is tough line between authenticity and fitting in with the firm culture?

MP:  I think there can be.  No one is truly 100% “authentic” in a work place. There is one extreme of “I have to be somebody else.”  Then, the opposite is: “I can be completely myself.”  One isn’t sustainable, and the other isn’t realistic.  Once you take those two extremes off the table, you must figure out where on that spectrum the organization is operating and where you personally fit on that spectrum.  Think about whether and how much you are self-policing and self-editing to get those points closer together, if there is a gap between the two. I think there are often distinct cultural issues in that process.

PD:  Can you illustrate that last point?

MP:  For instance, I grew up with the understanding that there are clear lines between the personal and the professional – you simply don’t tell people “all your business.” So, as my professional colleagues are chit-chatting about very personal issues I’m thinking to myself “I’m not talking about that at work.” To them, that is probably another time that I was perceived in a certain way for not fully participating in the conversation.   Then, I go home and I’m telling family about the little bit that I did reveal during the conversation with my coworkers and my friends and family are telling me that I said too much for a work setting.  Am I ever going to go “full in” and share everything?  Probably not, and some of that is cultural and some of it is my own personality.  But, I also had to recognize that building relationship capitol in any context means going outside my personal comfort zone, and “opening up” more than I may have been accustomed to doing,

PD: What do you think about self-policing?  Should Lady Lawyers refrain from self-policing when working in a majority environment?

MP: Self-policing or self-editing may vary over time – a lot of it depends on the stage you are in of your career.  There are probably things you can do at year five that you could not do at year one. Are there things that I can do at twenty plus years in the profession that I couldn’t do five years out of law school?  Absolutely.   I got to the point when I self- police less.  Again, in the small but telling realm: people driving into the firm’s parking garage at work tended to keep their car stereos tuned to whatever they were listening to as they drove in.  One of the things that I took great pleasure in was driving to the garage on days when I was having a, say, Public Enemy kind of a morning. Sometimes, it’s the dulcet tones of NPR and sometimes it’s Chuck D coming from the speakers, but that’s the full spectrum of me and I no longer felt compelled to “police” that.  Looking back, I was a lot more conscious and self-policing of that sort of thing in my more junior days.

PD:  So, I don’t hear you saying that minorities shouldn’t self-police because, you would agree that to some extent you should?

MP: Again, everybody has to do it to some degree at various points.   If, however, you find yourself constantly self-policing you should have – or may ultimately need to develop – the self-confidence to say, this is a fine paradigm but it’s not fine for me and I need to find another paradigm.  Give yourself the time to really sit with the question which we touched on earlier – and that is the distinction between “changing yourself” and the reality of adjusting to and navigating within a particular culture.  What’s negotiable and what’s not?  Know what your battles are, and where you may actually have to do less self-policing than you might initially think.

As Black women, our code shifting is often around gender and race – but there are likely to be other shifts going on a well (see Part II!).    Your self-policing and code shifting may be class-based, including within the Black community; it may be regional, with clients and/or colleagues from far less diverse areas; it may be intersectional and around issues ranging from sexual orientation and gender identity to religion to ethnicity/national origin; it may be generational and intra-familial, as we’ve touched on.  There is no single path, but focusing on emotional intelligence, learningand navigating through “the unwritten rules,” and having internal and external networks of support are key to moving forward and thriving while remaining true to yourself.

PD:  Thanks Monica!

When I started this blog, I planned to feature a different Lady Lawyer every month, however, Monica dropped so many more jewels that I would be remiss if I didn’t share more with you.  Next month, we will continue our feature of Ms. Parham.  Let’s call it Monica – Part II.  We will expand on the conversation of authenticity and self-care, but will go beyond authenticity during work hours.  We will talk about what that internal conversation looks like when dealing with our communities, families, and other Lady Lawyers.  Monica will also share her perspective on attrition and retention in firms and things to think about as Lady Lawyers navigate through that revolving door.

If you want to learn more about Monica, visit her on Linked in at