Entering the New Year with Intention

by: Denise A. Robinson, GWAC member and Founding Principal, The Still Center LLC

Entering the New Year with Intention

Do you make New Year’s resolutions? How long do they last? If you find yourself wavering on your resolutions just days or weeks into any new year, you are not alone: research suggests that less than 10 percent of people keep their resolutions. If you are looking for a way to better sustain your resolutions, consider setting an intention first. Here, intention refers to something I encourage my yoga students to create at the beginning of each class, which is an affirmation of what is already within you to be who you want to be. Resolutions are related, but focus more on the actions you need to take to get there. Both are essential to realizing one’s potential, but resolutions are hard to sustain without the foundation of a clear intention. Said another way, it is important to affirm who it is you seek to be before deciding what you want to do. Reversing the order might cost you more time and other resources than you are willing to invest.

To set an intention that serves as a strong foundation for sustainable resolutions, follow these three ‘Ps’: 

  • Be Positive: Articulate how you want to be rather than the behaviors you want to stop. Just as telling a child “no” often yields more undesired behavior, telling ourselves we want to stop doing something tends to ramp up our focus on the very thing we are trying to avoid. Instead, shift those valuable attentional resources by creating a positive statement about the way you want to be with yourself, with others, and in the world. 
  • Be Purposeful: Focus on what is meaningful by honing in on the reason(s) behind your resolution. For example, if you’ve resolved to lose weight this year, ask yourself why and continue to do so until you end up with a response that resonates with you – not what others want for you. Seeking ways to align your behavior with what is at the personal root of your goal – good health, for example – can help broaden the ways in which you are able to meet the specific goal stated in your resolution.
  • Be Present: State your intention in the present tense. Neuroscience research shows that imagining an experience can shape our perception and behaviors as much as actually having the experience, supporting the notion that the voice in our head that tells us whether we can or cannot do something really matters. In the same vein, speaking your intention in the present tense – e.g., “I am well,” rather than, “I want to be well” – can influence you on a subconscious level to behave in ways that are consistent with that intention, rather than pushing the change you seek into the future.

Once you have an intention that is positive, purposeful, and stated in the present tense, write it down, review it daily, and watch it manifest.

Guest Blog Post: What We Can Learn from Stacey Abrams’ Book “Minority Leader.”

By GWAC Guest Blogger Raziya Brumfield

What We Can Learn from Stacey Abrams’ Book, “Minority Leader,”: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change – by Raziya Brumfield

Motivated by Stacey Abrams’ democratic response to the State of the Union, I immediately purchased a copy of her book Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change.  Abrams’ address was historical, as she is the first African American Woman to deliver a State of the Union response.  Abrams is a lawyer, politician, business owner, and has authored several romance novels.  She also served as Minority Leader in the Georgia House of Representatives from 2011 to 2017 and gained widespread attention when she ran for governor of Georgia, again making history as the first Black female major-party gubernatorial nominee in the history of the United States.

 Although she was not elected governor of Georgia, I am sure that due to her charisma, steadfastness and utter grit, we will only continue to see more of Abrams.  She wrote Minority Leader for any individual who has been considered “other” whether it is because of their race, gender, socio-economic status or sexual orientation.  Abrams attemptsnot to provide solutions, but to arm minority leaders with tools that can be used to find your ambition, become more successful, and navigate both personal and professional goals.  Her book is filled with examples drawn from her personal life as well as situations of others, which provide context and relatable strategies.  In her book, Abrams constantly spreads gems of knowledge and insight, while boldly sharing both her weaknesses and strengths.  Here is what we can learn from this dynamic minority leader!  

  1. Be bold

Abrams opens her book by discussing her unsuccessful attempt in applying for a Rhodes Scholarship.  She explains that the situation was not a defeat but instead propelled her to reach for outcomes and opportunities that before seemed unattainable.  In doing so, she learned that “failure is not fatal.”  Whether it is a job, a new hobby or speaking up for yourself in a meeting, it is vital to stand tall, be bold, learn from your mistakes and continue to challenge yourself and one another.  

She discusses the challenges of attempting to reach new goals despite being afraid.  She cautions readers to watch what causes fear and attempt to understand why and where these feelings are coming from.  Gaining this understanding is essential to becoming an effective leader

2. Know or attempt to figure out what you want.

As minority leaders, Abrams explains the importance of being intentional about knowing who you are and what you want.  She shares with readers that after being hurt by a breakup while attending college at Spelman University, she decided to sit down and draft a spreadsheet, detailing her goals and ambitions for the next forty years!  This is a process that she has continued throughout her career.  She often assesses her accomplishments, sometimes even altering her goals.  

When charting individual goals, she implores the necessity of dreaming big and internalizing your right to achieve greatness.  Abrams provides several beneficial tools that can be used to figure out your passion and refine your goals.  The following are several specific tools that Abrams employs in her life and suggests of others:

  • Take a personality test to better learn your leadership style;
  • Set a personal mantra that guides your life;
  • Employ a SWOT analysis – SWOT is a common technique used in the business world.  It is an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats; and, lastly
  • Download the following exercises, provided by Abrams, and designed to guide you in revealing your ambitions, available here: http://minorityleaderbook.com/exercises.pdf

3. Finding a balance between being authentic and fitting in

Knowing or figuring out what you want is connected to knowing who you are and how others may perceive you.  Abrams further explains the importance of being aware of how you are being perceived by others and addresses the critical balance between fitting in and being yourself.  As an African American woman from Compton, California who has lived and worked in Berkley, California; Fairfax, Virginia; Washington D.C.; and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, myself, I am familiar with adapting and navigating a multitude of various environments, which can often feel uncomfortable.  Inevitably, individuals have different life experiences which shape their understanding of the world.  Being aware of the differences that surround you, while remaining true to who you are is a balance that is worth achieving.

4. Be open to having more than one passion.

            Abrams refutes the idea that you can only have one true life passion.  For individuals like myself who find a multitude of different topics interesting, this point of view is refreshing.  Abrams explains that your passion drives you.  She suggests that if you can go months or years without engaging in a particular activity or discussing a certain issue, it is not likely your passion.  If you are having trouble narrowing down your passion, consider the activities, ideas or thoughts that keep you engaged on a weekly or daily basis.  Additionally, use the tools mentioned above to better understand yourself and what drives you.

5. Expand your idea of mentorship.

Abrams pushes back on the conventional style of mentorship as the only way to build beneficial mentorships.  She explains the importance of peer mentors and situational mentors.  Peer mentors are individuals at your same level who can share valuable insight regarding the nuances of a new job, discuss pay salaries, and even provide constructive criticism of your work style and behavior.  Situational mentors are individuals who assist you in handling a particular issue whether it is advice on asking for a pay raise or handling a specific situation effectively.  Abrams suggests understanding your own style in determining what types of mentors will best suit you in a given situation or during a particular point in your life.

 I have only provided a glimpse of the multitude of lessons we can learn from Abrams’ book Minority Leader.  Her work ethic, passion to help others and bold ambition provides valuable insight, which I found to be truly inspiring and I hope you do too.

Guest Blog Post: Why is Public Service Loan Forgiveness So Unforgiving?

By: GWAC Immediate Past President Janea Hawkins

Why Is Public Service Loan Forgiveness So Unforgiving?

In the midst of the longest government shutdown in history, there is one integral facet of the federal government that has been partially shutdown for much longer: the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.  This program is designed to alleviate the federal loan debt of borrowers who work in certain types of public service after 10 years of payments.

Alarmingly, one report has stated that as of mid-last year, roughly 99% of processed applications for forgiveness under a government program aimed at helping public servants manage their federal student-loan debt had their applications rejected.[1] I’m not sure about you, but I went to law school on the condition that I would have a chance at having my enormous, at times paralyzing, amount of student loan debt forgiven. Apparently, I’m not alone. The current student loan debt is astounding, totaling over 1 trillion dollars across the country. Statistics show that millennials, who often minimally obtain a graduate degree to keep pace with our well-educated job market, are the most burdened with an average of $35,000 owed per person.

Many who entered the program when it first started in the Fall of 2007 really had to sort it out in a way that made sense because it was not well-publicized or communicated to borrowers. “It’s obvious that a huge number of people that couldn’t meet the requirements did not understand that they weren’t meeting the requirements,” said Clare McCann, the deputy director for higher education policy in the think tank New America’s education policy program.[2]  Over the years, many loan servicers received conflicting guidance from the Department of Education, which they passed on to thousands of borrowers seeking guidance.  As a result, many faithfully make their payments while they work in the public sector hoping that they will soon see the light at the end of the tunnel, but are disappointed when they discover that they are not eligible.

The first step to ensuring that forgiveness is attainable is to be armed with the basics:

Make 120 qualifying payments while under an income based repayment plan. A “qualifying payment” is one that is (1) made on a Direct federal loan; (2) under an income-driven repayment plan, while (3) working full-time for a public service employer such as government or public entity, or a nonprofit organization.

Also, a “qualifying payment” must be paid on time, or within fourteen days of the due date. That means fourteen days before or after the due date. One funky thing that I personally came across was when I used my Segal Education Award that I earned after my AmeriCorps service while working towards loan forgiveness. However, grants that are used towards loan repayment such as these will only make a lump sum payment on your behalf. So, even if the award amount covers multiple months’ worth of payments, you will only get credit for one payment.

Payments don’t have to be consecutive, so you can switch between qualifying and non-qualifying employers without being reset to zero.  It’s also important to know that under public service loan forgiveness, your debt is forgiven tax-free.

In the DMV, many attorneys work under government-contractor status and not government employee status.  This may not be enough to be considered a qualifying employer. As student loan expert Mark Kantrowitz has stated, “Government contractors must themselves be qualifying organizations for their employees to qualify for public service loan forgiveness.” [3]

Given all of the tricks of this trade, the best thing you can do is to submit the employer certification form to your loan servicer, available at www.myfedloan.org, every year. This will especially become important if one of your previous employers no longer exists. Also, keep records of everything you submit, since it is not uncommon that your submissions become lost. Hopefully when your time for loan forgiveness comes, you will pass with flying colors. If not, roll up your sleeves and get ready for a fight because the challenging fight of getting out of student debt is worth it!

[1] https://www.marketwatch.com/story/this-government-loan-forgiveness-program-has-rejected-99-of-borrowers-so-far-2018-09-20

[2] Id.

[3] https://www.cnbc.com/2018/12/21/1-percent-of-people-were-approved-for-public-service-loan-forgiveness.html

Guest Blog Post: Seven Overlooked Self-Care & Goal-Setting Principles for the New Year

By Roberta Oluwaseun Roberts, Esq.

Seven Overlooked Self-Care & Goal-Setting Principles for the New Year

(A shorter version of this post was originally published at https://robertaoroberts.com/2018/12/05/biblical-self-care-principles-fb-live/)

A new year is here again and taking better care of one’s self is at the top of many people’s goals for the new year, especially for lawyers who are becoming more aware of the importance of maintaining a healthy personal life while working in a high-stress profession such as the legal profession.  The concept of self-care has increased in popularity in recent years but it is often not discussed on a deeper level — while taking time for yourself and your physical health by getting your nails done and going to spin class does count as self-care, that is not all true, comprehensive self-care entails.  True self-care is not just physical self-care; true self-care addresses body, mind, and spirit.  So, I would love to share with my fellow black women lawyers seven commonly overlooked principles for self-care and goal-setting that I have recently learned and started to implement in my personal and professional life.   

Let’s get to it!

  • Break out a big assignment into smaller chunks, and delegate where feasible.

How many of us try to do too much at once and end up overwhelming ourselves, not just at work but in our personal lives?  And not just in terms of time you allocate to complete a task, but doing tasks that maybe we don’t need to be the ones doing?  Delegation is a sign of good stewardship, not a sign of not being able to “do the job.”  Think about some tasks you do at work or at home.  Are there some tasks you should be delegating to someone else instead of doing them yourself to not only free you up to do other things you love, but also empower others so they have a sense of ownership in something?  

  • Stop to pause and celebrate milestones instead of just rushing through to the next thing.

Too often we only punish ourselves for what we did not do or did not do well and do not reward ourselves for what we do get done.  Sometimes the reward itself is getting the task done, but we do a disservice to ourselves when we never stop and reflect on good things we have accomplished.  What good things have you done lately that you need to acknowledge and be thankful for?  

  • Get some rest that is more than a nap.

Resting is more than taking a long nap.  We need a spiritual retreat from the demands of everyday to unplug, reflect, and meditate.  In today’s world of being constantly connected by technology, it can be hard to unplug from work or social media — especially when we are expected to always be “on.”   In fact, we may even feel guilty or selfish for logging off to spend quiet time alone with ourselves.   This is where having boundaries and knowing what your priorities are come in handy.  If your spiritual and mental rest is important to you, you will have to create boundaries for yourself and others so you can carve out that offline time.

  • Be in a community with which you can relate.

We were not created to go through life alone with no friends and no people who understand our struggles and what we are going through.  We are supposed to be in a community of people where we can be open and vulnerable and uplifted and encouraged.  Groups like GWAC and the group I founded, Grace for the Grind™ Career Mastermind, exist to help foster that type of community for women lawyers.

  • Free yourself of the weight of the world.

There is a brand of “Superwoman Syndrome” that is unique to black women and the cause of stress, frustration, and feelings of not measuring up to the various roles we have taken on in life.   But the reality is that we — black women lawyers, lawyers, black women, women, human beings overall — were not designed to carry the burdens of everyone we know on our shoulders.  This is important to keep in mind when setting goals.  Ask yourself; are you setting this goal because it is something you want to do or solely because you think it is what is expected of you or what other people want you to do?  Does it align with your values and priorities?  Do you feel at peace pursuing this goal?

  • Do not despise small beginnings.

As you review what you didn’t accomplish this past year, try not to be too hard on yourself for not being where you want to be yet.  True success is not measured by how fast you achieve a goal if you had to sacrifice your well-being to get there. You are doing well if you keep going and stick to your values.  Remember that the real measure is progress, not perfection!

  • Seek wise counsel.

Seeking wise counsel for a plan of action offers stability and success.  The key word being wise counsel, though, and not just telling everyone you know about your plans.  Some people will give you bad advice or discourage you from doing what you are supposed to do and encourage you to do something you’re not supposed to.  This could happen both intentionally or unintentionally.  But, when we share our goals with the right people, we get valuable feedback to help avoid pitfalls and are provided with accountability to help us stay on track when we start to veer off.  

I hope you will implement some (or all!) of these principles into your overall self-care and goal-setting process this new year, and I look forward to cheering you on in your journey!

Connect with me on LinkedIn at https://linkedin.com/in/robertaoroberts (let me know you saw the article!), and check out more blog posts like this one and other resources at my website, https://robertaoroberts.com.

Guest Blog Post: The Power and Meaning of the Black Woman’s Vote

By: Kimberlee Gee

The Power and Meaning of the Black Woman’s Vote

It is that time of the year:  It’s voting season!  On November 6th, millions of Americans will head to the polls to cast their ballots and let their voices be heard.

In some ways, the 2018 midterm election is no different from all the other mid-term elections we’ve seen in the past – it presents an opportunity for citizens of this country to weigh in on issues most directly affecting their lives. What some might say is different about this election is that the matters that they care about most – workplace rights, health care, immigration, LGTBQ rights, gun control, racial injustice, or even criminal justice reform – may be implicated by their vote, or lack thereof, more than it ever has before.

The voting habits and trends of black women are so important because black women have an influential voice in politics, and are, in large part, the heart and soul of the black community.  We’ve seen in the most recent elections the history-making impact of the black female vote, tipping the scales of victory in favor of unlikely political candidates like Doug Jones in Alabama and gubernatorial primary candidate Stacy Abrams in Georgia.

According to data from the Pew Research Center, 61.4% of Americans voted in the 2016 Presidential election.[i] Of those that did vote, 10.1 million of those voters were black women, and 94% of them cast their ballots in favor of Hilary Clinton.[ii]  Not only do black women engage in voting at statistically higher rates than other demographics, black women are making a concerted and organized effort to become involved in the political process in other ways as well. There has been a grassroots effort all over the country, ranging from get-out-the vote efforts to setting up political action committees.  Most notably, there has been a groundswell of interest in mobilizing black women to run for political office.  Many of these efforts have been successful. The 2017 elections produced historic victories for several black women, including:

  • Keisha Lance Bottoms, mayor of Atlanta
  • Latoya Cantress, the first female mayor of New Orleans
  • Yvonne Spicer, the first mayor in the 317-year history of Framingham, Massachusetts
  • Mary Parham-Copelan has secured the seat of the first black mayor of Milledgeville, Ga.
  • Vi Lyles has become the first black female mayor of Charlotte.
  • Andrea Jenkins is an openly transgender black woman, and was elected to office in Minneapolis

Although these figures suggest that black female engagement in the voting process is on an upswing and that the black female bloc is an ideological monolith, studies reveal that black female voting patterns are more complicated than assumed.  Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that black voter turnout for the 2016 Presidential election actually decreased for the first time in 20 years to 59.6%. This trend was particularly noticeable among the black female voting bloc, decreasing from 70.7% in 2012 to 64.1% in 2016.[iii]

The best surface explanation as to why this occurred is that black women felt less connected to any of the 2016 candidates than to the 2008 candidates running for office, who ostensibly presented as more suitable options.  Yet, the rich history of black women in this country bespeak a different motivation for why black women vote the way they do.

An oft-quoted statement by Malcolm X asserts, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” Black women vote en masse, not just because of ideological voting preferences, but because as one of the most vulnerable members of American society, they often feel the negative effects of inequitable  policies the most.  This seems to be a longstanding political perspective that existed preceding the women’s suffrage movement itself.  In a New York Times article, How the Suffrage Movement Betrayed Black Women, the author notes clearly that even during the suffragist movement of the 1800s, black women overwhelmingly voted because they felt compelled to advance social policies that would ward off racial injustice in their communities, and consequentially, in their own personal lives:

black and white women had different views of why the right to vote was essential. White women were seeking the vote as a symbol of parity with their husbands and brothers. Black women, most of whom lived in the South, were seeking the ballot for themselves and their men, as a means of empowering black communities besieged by the reign of racial terror that erupted after Emancipation.[iv]

Considering the voting patterns of black women could revolutionize the way candidates court voters, and the policies they choose to support, because practically speaking, when party leaders support policies that benefit black women, they support policies that benefit every other group of people in the United States as well.  Angela Davis said it best when she declared:

Black women have had to develop a larger vision of our society than perhaps any other group. They have had to understand white men, white women, and black men.  And they have had to understand themselves.  When black women win victories, it is a boost for virtually every segment of society.[v]

The outcome of the upcoming mid-term elections is unknown.  However, if the past dictates the future, black women, will have a transformational effect on the outcome of this election, and on the future of politics in this country for many years to come.


[i] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/12/black-voter-turnout-fell-in-2016-even-as-a-record-number-of-americans-cast-ballots/

[ii] http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/resources/genderdiff.pdf  (Center for Women and Politics); see also https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/11/09/the-democratic-party-owes-black-women-voters-a-big-thank-you/?utm_term=.66ba5b21eb66

[iii] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/12/black-voter-turnout-fell-in-2016-even-as-a-record-number-of-americans-cast-ballots/

[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/28/opinion/sunday/suffrage-movement-racism-black-women.html

[v] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/11/09/the-democratic-party-owes-black-women-voters-a-big-thank-you/?utm_term=.836ca6e052a8

The Ethical Esquire

By: Maryam Hatcher, Esq.

Dear Ethical Esquire: Becoming a lawyer has always been my dream.  Ten years ago, that dream came true.  Now I am a junior partner at a mid-size firm with my own roster of very demanding clients.  Meanwhile, some other dreams of mine have also come true – I’ve gotten married and my spouse and I have started a family.  Between working all day, parenting all night, and handling firm and family obligations all weekend, I feel like I’m not showing up 100% in any area of my life.  Not to mention the fact that I never have time to take care of myself.  Despite my plate being completely full, I nonetheless feel pressure to continue taking on new matters at the firm so that I can maintain my partnership stake and make a name for myself.  The most recent project I’ve taken on has a client deliverable due next week, and I’m starting to think there are literally not enough hours in the day for me to handle it while also fulfilling my numerous other obligations.  Is it unethical for me to keep taking on work when I know the quality will start to suffer over time?

– Burned Out Barrister*

Dearest Burned:  Sit down, close your eyes, and take a deep breath.  And another deep breath.  Now one more.

There.  I suspect that you have not indulged yourself with three uninterrupted deep breaths in a while.

First, let’s get to the heart of your legal ethics-related question (after all, that’s what I’m here for).  One of the very first rules in the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.1, discusses the requirement of competent representation.  Under the Rule, competence includes “thoroughness and preparation,” both of which require that the lawyer taking on the matter has sufficient time.  So if you know that your work is coming in at a pace too fast for you to prepare and thoroughly execute your work, then you need to step back and assess how to better manage your workload.

Second, even if you are able to maintain the threshold competence required under the Rules, your overloaded schedule may be impeding your ability to do a stellar job.  It’s not just important to keep your license, but you want to make sure that you continue to have a strong reputation as an excellent attorney.  Sometimes that means taking fewer assignments or better delegating your responsibilities.

Lastly, you must take care of yourself.  Your physical and mental well-being have to be paramount in your life, and that sometimes means responsibly (i.e., in a manner that does not violate your ethical obligations) tuning out your work and attending to yourself.  It’s impossible to be a competent attorney with a reputation for exceptional work if you perpetually neglect your personal needs.


Take a few more deep breaths.  You got this!

Now – go forth and be ethical!

–  EE

*Disclaimer: “Burned Out Barrister” is a fictional advice seeker.  This blog is satirical in nature and, though it aims to provide helpful guidance regarding professional responsibility dilemmas, it is not intended to offer legal advice.

Lady Lawyer: Marcia Olivia Wright (Part I)

By: Patricia Donkor

Thanks for tuning into another installment of the Lady Lawyer.   Many professional women spend a great deal of time curating their outward personas.  For some, it’s important to be perceived as satisfied with their careers, happily in love with their significant other or purposefully single, financially secure, and the list goes on.  While appearing to have it all behind the scenes, some hate their jobs, are falling in and out of love, taking care of sick loved ones, and various other personal tribulations. It’s one thing to recognize that you are unfulfilled, but knowing how to change course is a different feat.  Change can be scary.  Failure can be equally crippling.  So, some live a lifetime pretending to be content.  Some are forced into change.  And some garner the courage to take control of their lives and do things differently.

This month, I feature Marcia Olivia Wright, Esq.  Marcia, principal attorney of Wright Law & Advocacy, is a Virginia and Washington, D.C. lawyer by day, and by nights, weekends, and whenever else time permits, she is owner of a boutique culinary business, Sweet Mossie’s.  She also helps to run the Womanhood Training Rites of Passage Program based in Washington, DC.  Marcia believes that mentoring teenage girls through the Womanhood Training Program is one of her life’s best works.

Today, Marcia’s law practice and culinary business are both flourishing.  However, it took a journey and an awakening to the importance of self-care and authenticity to bring her where she is today.  She candidly spoke to me about her exploration.  Our conversation was so vast and raw that I will feature Marcia in a two-part series.  Check out Part I of my interview with Marcia, below.

PD: Marcia, tell me about yourself.

MW: Where do I begin? I’ll start with the basics. I was born in DC and raised in Arlington, VA. I graduated from Yorktown High School. I earned my undergraduate degree at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia in 2000, and my Juris Doctor at The Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law in Washington, DC in 2003.  I have been practicing law, amongst other things, for about 15 years.

PD:  When did you decide you wanted to practice law?

MW:  It wasn’t necessarily something that I knew innately.  At an early age, due to my demanding, brainy and inquisitive personality, my family always told me that I would be a lawyer or a preacher. Because I heard this over and over again, and figured I was too much of a wild child to preach, being a lawyer is what stuck with me.  If I were to do it all over again, however, I doubt if I would make the same choice.

PD:  Really?  When did you realize that?

MW: Honestly, I think that very early on in my practice I thought “this does not feel like I thought it would feel.”  But, at the time these feelings started to surface, I was neither bold nor confident enough to do something different.  My very being was attached to the title “Attorney”, so I decided to continue to make it happen regardless of how it felt in my body.  Now that I am in a totally different space in my life and womanhood, the goal is simply to be great. If I could reconstruct my life without the influences of others, however good intentioned, I just don’t know if law would have been my path.

PD:  So, walk me through your journey a little.  What did you major in at Spelman?

MW: I was a Sociology major and a Mathematics and Spanish minor. In other words, I was totally confused (laughter).

PD: When you started undergraduate school did you know that law school would be next?

MW: Yes, that was the goal, but in retrospect going straight through is another regret that I have.

PD:  Did you have a concentration during law school?

MW: I fluctuated between a lot of areas.  I went to law school thinking I would focus on International Business.  I had studied abroad in undergrad and I liked the whole international thing.  But, as I matriculated through law school, my interests changed…often and a lot.  There was a time that I was into entertainment and trademark stuff.  I participated in the General Practice Clinic, where I focused on family law.  I worked for Ayuda, which is a non-profit organization in Columbia Heights, DC. There, we provided family law and immigration services to the Latino community.  I also had an interest in environmental law issues and took a few classes in this area.   I even pursued the healthcare law concentration for a period, where I learned about laws relating to bio-ethics.

So, I spent time exploring just about every area of interest to me, to include family law, which is what I practice primarily now.  Because I didn’t have work experience outside of being in undergrad, I had no idea what I wanted to do.  I just knew the classes I was drawn to and went with that. I competed in Moot Court, and was darn good at it, so at least I knew I wanted to litigate.

PD: What was your first job out of law school?

MW:  I worked on one of the major tobacco litigation cases with the Department of Justice (“DOJ”), performing document review and other discovery based work.  It was simply a place-holder pending Bar Exam results, and while I figured out where I was going to work.

PD: Where did you go after?

MW: I don’t believe I even finished the case at DOJ, because I was hired by a firm in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia.

PD:  When you accepted that position, did you have a better idea of what you wanted to practice?

MW: Well, at the firm, one partner’s practice was primarily high-level federal and state criminal matters, and the other partner had a very heavy civil practice in D.C. Superior Court.  So, my ground training was handling those types of matters in D.C. Superior Court and the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division.  When the firm decided that they wanted to diversify, I was able to rely on my work in Family Law, and began to bring in family law cases.  So, I started the firm’s family law branch.

PD: How long were you there?

MW: About 3 to 3 ½ years.  I left to start my own firm.

PD:  People start their own law practices at different points in their careers and for various reasons.  What made you start your own practice when you did?

MW:  I met a young lady that just finished up at Howard Law.  She and I turned out to be kindred spirits. She initially came to me for mentoring because she was going to take the Virginia Bar Exam. The more time that we spent together, the more we realized that we were aligned in our ideals and goals for the practice of law.  She wanted to work for herself, and I was getting exhausted with firm life.  Also, I grew up in a household where entrepreneurship was the standard.

So, the notion of starting a firm with another young black woman that was 1) just as smart as I was (she might be even smarter); 2) a member of my sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, Incorporated, of course; and 3) who wanted to practice in the geographical area where we both were raised, was extremely appealing to me.  I already knew how to run a firm because the firm was gracious enough to give me plenty of opportunities to learn how to do that. So, we made it happen.

PD: Did any self-care or self-preservation considerations influence the decision?

MW: At that point, I was still in my 20s, I think I was 28.  I don’t think that at 28, I was interested in the notion of self-care.  I was more so interested in the grind and even the public appearance of what it would look like to be this young lawyer with her own law firm.

PD:  That is interesting.  I met you years ago, when I was in law school and you were a lawyer that volunteered to assist our mutual friend, Chidi James, coach my trial advocacy team.   You have always come off as someone that walked to her own drumbeat.  But, hearing you say that you did not fully know who you were reinforces the adage that appearance is only one perception.

So, the law firm that the two of you created was Walker Wright, correct? Describe the law practice?

MW: I mostly handled family law matters, some criminal matters and I did a little Guardian ad litem work.  I was also heavily involved with entertainment law.  There was a band that I was quasi managing and doing a lot of contract work for.  In addition, around 2007, I started working for an arts organization called Silver Star Arts Studios (“SSAS”) that consisted of mainly big firm lawyers, from across the country, who worked together to find raw, artistic talent, in the realms of music, fine arts, graphic design, and literary. I worked with SSAS for about three years.

PD: How did you get involved in that?

MW: Two of my friends from Spelman were Assistant General Counsel and asked me if I was interested.  I interviewed with them and initially started off as a Director of Public Relations.  I eventually moved to the role of Assistant General Counsel. I worked with artists, of all types, all over the country.  I worked on contracts, performance agreements and even setting up live exhibits for artists.  Working with SSAS in my various roles helped me in my work with the band.  This was basically my way of adding fun to the otherwise stressful practice of law.

PD: How long did you have Walker Wright?

MW: We started our practice in 2006 and my business partner left around 2009.  She got married to a wonderful man and became a mother to two beautiful children.  So, for her, self-care meant starting a family.  I have been on my own since 2009.

PD:  The band that you worked with was a go-go band based out of Washington, D.C., right?

MW:  Yes. It was a rock/alternative band based out of D.C. that incorporated the indigenous sounds of go-go in their original music.

PD: So, you stated that starting the law firm was not a decision based in self-care; did there ever come a time when you began to make career decisions out of self-care/self-preservation?

MW:  I would say that my choices had very little to do with the practice of law and more with how life kind of happened.  I got engaged in 2006.  In 2007, I was planning a wedding.  I ultimately did not marry that person.  That same year, my father, who I was very close with, got sick.  For six-months, or more, I was caring for him.  I have a large family — nine siblings.  We took turns being caretakers.  However, I was the one most accessible during the day because I worked for myself.  I could be in court and would get a phone call from my dad’s nurse I would step out to take the call and my father would be on the other end asking that I come and assist him with something.  So, my dad’s illness began to shape my priorities at that point.

As he began to die, practicing law lost its importance to me.  I lost interest in being involved in local bar associations.  I began to develop more of a thirst to be authentic to who I was. Still unsure of how to express that or even what that looked like, I became more drawn to the aspects of law that gave me joy.  Hence why I jumped into the “management” role with the band.  I was supposed to be practicing law and managing a firm, but instead I was on the road going to shows. It was quite ill-advised, but it sure was fun and a much-needed respite.

PD: Was the work with the band more fulfilling to you than the traditional practice of law?

MW:  Let me give you a little background.  I worked with the band from 2007 until about 2012-2013.  I wasn’t managing the band at first, I was helping them negotiate a deal.  Then they severed their relationship with their manager and there was a gap in coverage of the management duties.  I never really called myself their manager, but I ended up taking on roles that were like a manager such as booking their shows, which was far beyond what I should have been doing as a lawyer.  I got caught up in that because it was a break in the busyness of a family and criminal practice, and the mental break that I needed from having just lost my father.  I think that losing my father helped me look in the mirror and for the first time in my life begin to ask the question, “who are you?”  I was the first in my family to do most things, so, everyone had these expectations of me and who I was going to be.  I was their golden child.

PD: How did this golden child stigma affect choices that you made?

MW: I didn’t want to be the golden child.  Unlike some of my siblings, I am very much a non-conformist.  I am very unique and creative before anything else.  I have this academic side of me, yes, but I also have this very wild gypsy creative part of me too.  I don’t think that I ever felt empowered to embrace the part of me that was wild and creative because that girl did not meet the expectation of what the professional, smart, Spelman-grad Marcia looked like.

PD: Do you feel like you were using the creative side of you before this point in your life or had you been completely suppressing it?

MW: There were aspects of my life that I tapped into outside of work, such as writing. I spend a lot of time writing.  But I did not hone into all the intricate parts of who I was, that to me now are equally as fabulous as Marcia the lawyer.  I didn’t embrace them.   The funny part is, anyone who sat down and talked to me, realized very early in the conversation that being a lawyer was just a very small aspect of who I am. I had to speak at an event recently.  I told the audience that I consider myself to be a fisherman of men (and women).  I walk into a space, no matter what that space is, and something about my energy invites and invokes people to reach back into themselves and truly discover what is authentic and divine.  It’s the spirit of Sankofa. I wasn’t ready for that level of dialogue at 25 or 26, when I first started to practice law.  It didn’t seem to have a place in the field and I struggled with it, but eventually arrived at a place where I didn’t have to struggle with it anymore. I was set free. I was able to find the place in the practice of law, and in life, where I could bring my whole self to the table.

PD: When did your father pass away?

MW:  He got sick in June of 2007.  He died February 16, 2008.

PD:  Do you feel that losing your father was the catalyst to the beginning of your self-discovery as a lawyer and a woman.

MW:  Absolutely.  That was the catalyst without a doubt. Transitions invoke other transitions, if you are ready.

In Marcia, Part II, we will pick up with Marcia telling us about her awakening to self-discovery and how that impacted her law practice, personal life and how those episodes prepared her for the woman and lawyer that she is today.

While you wait for Part II, you can read more about Marcia and her culinary company Sweet Mossie’s by clicking the below links.




The Ethical Esquire: Avoiding Ethical Concerns When Transitioning Jobs

By: Maryam Hatcher, Esq.

Dear Ethical Esquire: I recently left my job in private practice to work for the government.  I love my government job, and the experience I gained at my old firm is really helping me understand the issues that arise in my new cases.  The problem is, now that I work for the government, I find that I am most often advocating for the exact opposite position that I used to take with my clients in private practice.  I know that I have duties to my former clients and I want to live up to those obligations, but I don’t want to find myself conflicted out of every new case that comes my way because the general argument is adverse to one I took with my previous clients.  How do I find a good balance?

– Happy Government Lawyer*

Dearest Happy:  Congratulations on your new position!  I am glad to hear that you are enjoying your new job and even more glad that you have given your duties to your former clients some real thought.

Transitioning between private practice and the government is common, and many times new government lawyers find themselves on opposite sides of the issues they dealt with while at their former firms.  There are many ethical challenges that may arise in this situation but, never fear, you can competently perform your new role for the government without failing your former clients.

First, you may be able to take legal positions that are adverse to your clients under certain conditions.  However, per ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.9(a), the matter cannot be “the same or a substantially related matter” to the one in which you represented your client.  The comments to this Rule clarify that matters “are ‘substantially related’ … if they involve the same transaction or legal dispute or if there otherwise is a substantial risk that confidential factual information as would normally have been obtained in the prior representation would materially advance the client’s position in the subsequent matter.”  Thus, merely taking a position that is different than the position you took on a client’s behalf on a completely unrelated matter will not necessarily invoke the rule.

Also, as was touched on in the above language from the comments to Rule 1.9, the ABA Model Rules forbid you from using confidential information you gained from a former client to support your position in a later case.  Specifically, Rule 1.6 says you cannot reveal confidential information you gained through the representation of your client except for certain enumerated reasons, none of which is you getting a new job in which that information would be helpful.  This is true even if the new matter is completely unrelated to your representation of your former client.

Keep in mind that, with your former client’s informed consent (which you should memorialize in writing), you may be able to take an opposite position in a matter substantially-related to your former client’s matter and use your former client’s confidential information to do so.

As always, check your jurisdiction’s rules and other guidance to ensure that it comports with the above.

In a nutshell, Happy, you have to toe the line when it comes to working on matters closely related to your former client’s matters or when dealing with your former clients’ confidential information (unless you get your former client’s written, informed consent).  But that does not prevent you from taking legal stands that are counter to the one’s you took in private practice.

The law is rigid, but not that rigid.  Sheesh.

Now – go forth and be ethical!

–  EE

*Disclaimer: “Happy Government Lawyer” is a fictional advice seeker.  This blog is satirical in nature and, though it aims to provide helpful guidance regarding professional responsibility dilemmas, it is not intended to offer legal advice.

In her final post of the year, Ethical Esquire will discuss how the issue of work-life balance plays a role in meeting your professional responsibility obligations.



Lady Lawyer: Vernida R. Chaney (Part II)

By Patrica Donkor

Hello everyone!  Thanks for tuning into another installment of the Lady Lawyer!  I’m so excited warm weather is finally here!  One of my goals for the year is to participate in more speaking engagements.  So, I am excited to be speaking at the International Municipality Lawyers Association (IMLA) conference in a couple of weeks.  It will be my first time presenting a CLE.  There is something about the idea of speaking to a group of lawyers that makes me nervous.  Wish me luck!

If you tuned in last month, you will recall that I spoke with Vernida Chaney, criminal defense attorney extraordinaire.  There, she and I discussed her experiences as a Fairfax County Senior Public Defender (PD) and Capital Defender, and some of the self-care considerations that she grappled with in those roles.  This month, is a continuation of that discussion.  Vernida, who established her own law practice three years ago, and I will explore the decisions that preceded this venture, as well as tackle the decisions she continues to face as owner of Chaney Law Firm.

PD: Welcome back, Vernida!  Tell me, how did you know it was time to leave Fairfax County Public Defender’s Office (PD’s office) office and establish your own practice?

VC: I loved being a public defender; however, I always knew I wanted to either head up my own PD’s office or start my own law firm.  I decided it was time to step out on faith and chose the latter. Over the years, I had learned a lot but I was eager to explore other aspects of law, mainly federal law.  Therefore, by going into private practice, I am able to represent clients in both state and federal courts,  which offer a nice variety of cases.   

PD:  I see.  So, at that time, you felt that you had reached your full potential at the PD’s office?

VC:  Yes.  I had learned a lot and gained invaluable experience, but everyday is another opportunity to learn something new.  I wanted an opportunity to work in the federal system and explore different practice areas, like personal injury.  The Fairfax Public Defender’s Office only handled state criminal cases.

PD:  Was speaking to people important to you as you began to seriously think about starting your practice?

VC:  Absolutely!  Before I decided to start my own practice, I consulted with dozens of people, including former public defenders, about going into private practice.  Everyone I spoke with was very generous with their time and advice.  They gave me so many tips and resources, including things to avoid.  For example, one piece of invaulable advice was to keep my overhead expenses low for the first few months of starting a new law firm.

PD: Makes sense.  Okay, tell me about the planning process for starting your own practice.  What did that look like for you?

VC:  Before I left the PD’s office, I began to set things up.  First, I told my boss at the PD’s office that I was planning to leave about six or seven months prior.  Over my last four or five months there, I began to move things into place.   I took various training classes and Continued Legal Education (CLE) courses on the new areas I wanted to explore, such as federal criminal law, family law, and estate planning.

PD: Did you do anything else?

VC: I read a lot about starting a law practice.  I wanted to avoid many of pitfalls that attorneys experience when leaving the public sector for the private sector, so I took time to educate and prepare myself.  I also consulted the Professional Rules of Responsibility and Virginia State Bar to make sure my practice complied with the ethics rules.  Additionally, once I made the decision to start my own law firm, I began telling people, especially other lawyers.  Most of my first cases came as a referral from other lawyers.  To this day,  many of my clients still come from referrals from other attorneys, who have confidence in my work and skills.

PD:  How did you decide what you wanted to do about office space? In Virginia, you don’t actually have to have an office.  You could identify your home address or even a P.O. Box as an “office” for recordkeeping.  Considering you wanted to keep costs down, was having a physical office important to you?

VC: I spoke with a lot of attorneys about office options, too.  You’re correct; you are not required to have a physical office in Virginia.  I know many attorneys who do not have a private office but instead work from home and meet clients at the courthouse or other meeting locations.  Over the past few years, many attorneys have taken advatange of virtual offices which provides them the flexiblity to rent office and meeting space on an as-needed basis.  Both options are excellent for reducing overhead; however, I was used to working in a physical office and wanted to establish a permanent presence with my firm.  My office is located across the street from the Fairfax County Courthouse.  The cost for the space  is  a business expense I personally feel is necessary for me to have a place that is comfortable for myself and my clients.

PD:  Now that you have been out on your own for a couple of years and have seen a bit, can you think of any common, yet unnecessary, purchases by people opening their own practices that you strayed away from?

VC: Yes, office space. Office space can be the biggest monthly expenditure so people starting their own practice should fully consider all options before making that financial commitment.  Although, I considered other options, for me, it made the most sense to have a permanent physical office for my practice.  Besides having a nice office close to the courthouse, I also found that I needed a work space outside of my living space to handle complex trial litigation.  In the type of cases I handle, I often receive boxes of discovery from the government.  Having an office separate from my home provides me with a place to review and store a mass of files and documents. Additionally, I have work and conference rooms at my office that others can use to assist me.

PD:  Sounds like your decision to wait on the permanent office space was a form of self-preservation.  Are there any other wasteful expenses that you can think of that you consciously avoided?

VC:  Yes.  Other things that a lot of people spend money on right away, which may not be necessary, are websites, optimization, and branding.

PD: What is optimization?

VC: Hiring companies to increase your placement on search engines is an example of optimization.  There is definitely a benefit to having your law firm appear first or second in a web search when a potential client is looking for a lawyer; however, I decided against spending money on this.  I knew from having left the PD’s office that I did not want to have a volume practice.  Instead, I decided to focus on procuring the right clients and not on being first on the list of a Google search.

PD: Have you seen people take on more than they can chew?

VC: Definitely. Starting a new practice can be overwhelming, both professionally and financially.  Many people take on cases they may be unprepared to handle just to pay the bills.  I chose not to do that and only handled cases and clients I could properly serve.

PD: Any other common pitfalls that you knew were not conducive to how you wanted to enter private practice?

VC: Yes, hiring unecessary full-time staff. As attorneys, we must delegate a portion of our admistrative tasks so we can focus on representing our clients.  However, attorneys should be cautious in delegating specialized tasks to staff and create a monitoring or checks system to ensure those tasks are done properly.  Also, attorneys should consider the cost and productivity of the staff to assess whether the investment in human capital is worth it.  My business background requires me to think of things like return on the investment.

PD:  So, do you use any support staff or do you do everything on your own?

VC:  Yes I do. I cannot do everyting on my own.  Using assistants, paralegals, and interns have proven to be vital for me.  They help me with client communications, research, discovery review,  and the like.  I also use courier services to pick up/drop off items and a transcriptionist to save time.

PD: In the beginning, did you have to decide how much money you wanted to make versus how many cases you wanted to take on?

VC: I made a conscious effort that I would not take everything that comes through the door.  I would only take what I could handle.  Also, I decided that I was not going to overextend myself.  That meant that I had to turn down some cases.  I knew it made sense to focus on what I knew, so that I would not have to worry about the learning curve if I ventured into an unfamiliar area.  The times that I did venture into new things, those cases were  ancillary to criminal law, such as grand jury witness representation, protective orders, school disciplinary hearings, et cetera.  I think setting those parameters early in my practice have served me well.

PD: I am curious about this decision.  I can see someone just starting out and being tempted to take on as much as they could, especially when they go from a steady income to having to generate income.

VC: So can I, but I didn’t do it.  I just stuck to what I knew. I’m a firm believer in staying in your lane.

PD: You are your own boss.  How did you determine what your work schedule would be?

VC: I don’t necessarily have a set schedule. I usually work Monday through Friday during traditional work hours either in my office, at the jail, or on the road.  I also work nights and on the weekends, as needed.  If I am not able to meet with a client during the day because of court or other obligations, I will meet with them in the evening.  I also tend to spend a lot of Saturdays at the jail visitng clients.  Flexibility and balance are important to maintain when operating your own law firm. For instance, when I finish a big project, I try to take a bit of time off before I move on to the next big project.

PD:  You mentioned that you informed people that you were opening your law practice before you left the PD’s office.  How was business in the beginning?

VC: When I first began, I had a lot of downtime which was much-welcomed as it allowed me time to focus on establishing a strong foundation for my private practice. During this time, I continued to explore legal topics relevant to criminal defense as well as wrap up any administrative obligations the firm had or would soon need.

PD: Another decision that I think falls under the category of self-care/self-preservation when starting your own practice is partnering with other lawyers.  Did you consider partnering with anyone?

VC:  I did.  A few people solicited me for partnership.

PD: Why did you decide against partnering?

VC:  It was a hard decision.  I was approached and had conversations with several great attorneys who I admire.  At the time, I knew I could benefit from a partnership; however, I felt the better option was to establish myself first.

PD: You did not partner, but do you collaborate with other lawyers in any way?

VC: I do, often.  I have a group of lawyers that I work well with.  We share cases.  We refer cases to one another.  I cannot say I will never partner with anyone, but it is something to weigh very heavily before doing.

PD: You mentioned taking downtime in between big projects. What else do you do to clear your mind?

VC: After my most recent trial ended a couple of weeks ago, I travelled  to visit my sister.  After another big trial last summer, I vacationed at the beach for a week.  I need to have downtime.  My happy places are anywhere there is water and a beach.  I take advantage of these getaways whenever I can.  It’s relaxing to get away from work and deadlines. It helps me to balance the demands of running my law firm.

PD: Describe the vision that you have for your practice, as far as Vernida is concerned.   What do you want your practice to look like, for you, mentally?

VC: I am blessed to have a good practice and great clients that trust me to handle their cases.  This work is hard and can be very unpredictable, so it is important for me to take things in stride and stay composed no matter what obstables may come.  My vision for myself is to stay on this path I’ve already established so that I may continue to give my clients highly-skilled and ethical representation.  Also, I will continue to steadily grow my business and, maybe at some point in the future, have a full-time staff and perhaps a partner.

PD:  Thanks Vernida and congrats on the success of your firm!

VC: Thanks Patricia!

If you want to learn more about Vernida, visit her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/vernida-r-chaney-b9899045