What is the Solution?

What is the Solution?

(Originally posted at http://www.melaniebates.net/blog/what-is-the-solution)

African Americans are racially profiled and discriminated against consistently by law enforcement, due to implicit bias stemming from the horrendous history of this nation. I am outraged that yet again another police officer has been acquitted for murdering one of our people. I am sick and tired of this cycle repeating itself over and over without requiring accountability and transparency on the part of our government, which is paid by our tax dollars to protect and serve.

“I feared for my life.” These five words are regularly used by police officers as a defense. Fear is defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” The countless police killings in recent years prove that the law does not protect African Americans. These instances are teaching us that if you are African American, you are a threat and therefore free game to be killed. The reality is, African Americans are the ones who are in constant fear for their lives. For example, if I am driving and see a police officer behind me, my stomach flips. I get nervous and shaky. I am worried that I will be pulled over for no valid reason and endure unnecessary emotional stress during the encounter. It does not matter that I am an attorney and know my rights. All it comes down to is that I am African American and perceived as dangerous.

When I was learning to drive, the first thing my mother told me was if I ever got pulled over, to keep my hands on the steering wheel at “10 and 2” where the officer could see them. If I did not have a chance to get my license and registration out prior to the officer coming to my window, I was to ask for permission to remove it from the glove compartment. I am certain my friends in white households were not taught the same.

I refuse to sit idle and watch another tragic incident occur. We must demand change. We cannot stop fighting until we see measurable impact. If transformation will not come from our elected officials and others in power, we must serve as the influencing voice to advocate for justice. But what is the solution?

Melanie Bates is an attorney based in Washington, D.C. She is on the Advisory Board of Free Minds Books Club and Writing Workshop, a nonprofit organization that uses books, creative writing, and peer support to awaken D.C. youth incarcerated as adults to develop their own potential. The views expressed here are her own.

Law & Well Being

Making a Case for Downtime

By Denise A. Robinson

Want to be more productive? Take a break.

As discussed in the first blog in this series, our American culture drives us to do first, be later. And the legal profession and client-service fields like it take that mantra to that next level. We are rewarded for pushing through, working all the time, and dropping everything when the client calls. But this approach means that we’re fighting a losing battle with our ability to focus, according to the research of Daniel Levitin and other neuroscientists.

While we are trained to think that if we just keep at it, we’ll get the work done, the fact is that our brain cells fatigue like any other cell in the body. To keep them fresh, we need to regularly allow the attentional filter in our brains called the insula, to move from tasks that require focus and concentration to those that don’t. These attention states are known as task positive and task negative, respectively. Taking a break from work is a way to get to the task negative state, but some of the common things we do when we think we’re taking a break won’t get us there. Consider the last time you were working and stopped to do something else. If that something else included checking your email or reading the news online, your brain treats that just like working from an attentional standpoint. It may feel like a break to you, but those activities compete for the focus and concentration needed for work tasks.

No wonder we’re so tired!

In addition to getting proper rest, something as simple as taking a brief walk outdoors or even around the office can reset your brain and provide you greater attentional resources when you return to tasks requiring focus. Recreational activities have a similar effect, as do hobbies such as gardening, painting, or making crafts. Listening to music or getting lost in a good novel works as well.

Taking vacations where you’re truly unplugged counts, too, but don’t wait for your next trip to give yourself a break. Make time for downtime every day.

How do you hold DC police accountable? Here’s how I learned.

How do you hold DC police accountable? Here’s how I learned.

(Originally posted on http://www.melaniebates.net/blog.html)

By GWAC Past President Melanie E. Bates

“Mere access to the courthouse doors does not by itself assure a proper functioning of the adversary process.” This profound quote by Thurgood Marshall succinctly illustrates the importance of knowing your rights when encountering the justice system, especially if you are African American. It is undisputed that African Americans are racially profiled and discriminated against consistently by law enforcement, due to implicit bias stemming from the horrendous history of this nation.

African Americans are pulled over by police, searched, and arrested at tremendously higher rates than whites. In Washington, D.C., between 2009 and 2011, more than 8 out of 10 residents arrested were African American. The inmate population at the D.C. jail is 89.1% African American, but African Americans only make up 48.3% of the city’s population! These figures are shocking and demonstrate how African Americans must always be prepared to demand equal treatment under the law. Unfortunately, I recently found myself in a situation where I would need to do so.

A few months ago, my friends and I were passengers in my friend’s vehicle, a newer model Maserati, when we were pulled over by D.C. police for no apparent reason. We were followed by this officer for at least .25 miles prior to being stopped. We were told the reason for the stop was due to a call about a woman in distress. The officer also stated that my friend failed to use his turn signal. Both of these statements appeared to be unfounded. After the officer collected my friend’s license and registration and returned to the vehicle, he stated that sometimes foxes are mistaken for a woman’s scream. He then issued a warning for failure to signal. My friends and I were outraged. The stop seemed to be an obvious act of racial profiling and a clear abuse of discretion. We were four young African Americans in a luxury vehicle, driving in an upper class neighborhood in the early morning hours. I shudder to imagine how this incident would have ended had my friend not indicated he lived in the neighborhood.

Fortunately, the District of Columbia established a mechanism for residents to hold law enforcement accountable. The agency was opened in 2001 and is called the Office of Police Complaints (OPC). The stated mission of OPC is to increase community trust in the District of Columbia police forces by providing a fair, thorough, and independent system of civilian oversight of law enforcement. Residents can file complaints against the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and D.C. Housing Authority Office of Public Safety within 90 days of an incident. Since OPC opened, it has received approximately 15,830 total contacts with potential complainants and has handled 6,968 formal complaints.

I submitted my complaint to OPC via the online form. A few weeks later, I was interviewed by an OPC investigator. My case was then referred to mediation. In mediation, the mediator guides you and the officer through a dialogue about the incident that led to the complaint with the goal of reaching a common understanding. My mediation went surprisingly well. The officer was very cordial. He provided an extensive history of his background and thought process for the stop. He said hindsight is 20/20 and described what he would have done differently. He was clearly briefed and his statements seemed a bit rehearsed, but I think he was genuinely concerned and empathetic about my frustrations as an African American woman in America. The officer’s body worn camera footage did not capture the alleged failure to signal so it was essentially his word against mine. In the end, I agreed to resolve the complaint. It was a transformative learning experience. I was able to hear directly from the officer about his perspective of the incident and he was able to identify what he could have done differently, hopefully leading him to make better choices in the future.

I strongly encourage all residents to take advantage of the services OPC has to offer. While it can be an extensive process, the results are invaluable. You will feel empowered and motivated to help others fight for their rights. We must come together and join forces to hold our government accountable to its citizens. Our collective action will effectuate movement towards a more fair and balanced justice system.

Melanie Bates is an attorney based in Washington, D.C. She is on the Advisory Board of Free Minds Books Club and Writing Workshop, a nonprofit organization that uses books, creative writing, and peer support to awaken D.C. youth incarcerated as adults to develop their own potential. The views expressed here are her own.

Law & Well Being

Stay Focused

By Denise A. Robinson

“What now?” That’s what I imagine my brain says in response to all of the high-tech induced stimuli coming its way. Email alerts while I’m trying to work. Text messages and endless group chats. Notifications from apps I’m pretty sure I asked not to notify me. ‘Breaking news’ that never takes a break. And this deluge of information is compounded by distractions of the no-tech variety: the chatty colleague who loves to stop by your office; working on one task while worrying about another; or that Starbucks run that just can’t wait. And that’s just in the office!

Among other things, these constant demands for our attention have a tremendous impact on our productivity and energy. To make matters worse, our brain chemistry – which reacts favorably to the possibility of new information – can make these interruptions hard to resist. So, what can we do to stay focused on what matters?

While we can – and should, on occasion – turn off our phones or close the office door, shutting down the source of the stimuli is only a temporary solution. Regaining and maintaining control of our focus requires that we practice observing and responding, rather than reacting, to the persistent buzz around us. One way to cultivate this approach is to practice mindfulness, which is to attend, without judgment, to what’s happening right now. Somewhat paradoxically, mindfulness helps to keep us from being pulled into distractions by raising our awareness of them. Often, we go through the day not even noticing the various demands on our attention, but when we don’t notice, we can’t make a choice to be pulled in or not. Mindfulness allows us to pause to observe what is happening – both internally and externally – just long enough to make a conscious decision to continue doing what we’re doing and let go of whatever ‘alert’ has come our way, or go with it. Practiced over time, we can even begin to perceive various stimuli as a request for our attention, to which we can say ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or even ‘not now’, rather than a demand that must be obeyed.

What’s your approach to staying focused on your focus without shutting down the world around you?


Getting to the “Personal” in Personal Branding

Spruce Up Your Personal Brand for Spring!

By Onika K. Williams

Spring has officially sprung!  If you need any confirmation that spring is in full bloom, feel free to search for cherry blossom photos on Instagram…and the growing allergy aisle at your local pharmacy!  With spring comes new beginnings.  This is an excellent time to re-evaluate what you have done this year and what you hope to accomplish in the next year.  Was there something you were hoping to accomplish this year, but have not been able to start?  Did you want to take a language course?  Need new headshots?  Want to work on your LinkedIn page?  Want to exercise more?  Now is the time to do it!

However, before plunging head first into sprucing up your personal brand, here are few tips to make sure you are doing so efficiently and for the right reasons:

  • Ask yourself why you are hitting the “reboot” button: While spring is an excellent time to re-evaluate where you are in your goals, make sure you are not starting new endeavors just to check off a box. Yes, getting new headshots this spring would be great, but if you got new headshots in January 2017, do you really need new headshots?  Remember to ask yourself if the activity you are about to engage in is necessary to reach your goals.
  • Do you have time to engage in this new activity? During this time of year, many bar associations are completing their bar years and preparing for executive board elections. Are you looking to get more involved with your local bar associations or become more involved with a national bar association?  This is great!  Being involved in bar associations illustrates that you are willing to volunteer and take on leadership opportunities.  Additionally, participating in bar associations allow you to network and learn new skills.  But, is it not necessary to be president of every bar association that ever existed all at the same time?  Likely no.  Make sure you do not take on too much at once.
  • Do something new! Once you have figured out whether you are hitting the “reboot” button for the right reasons and that you have time for a new activity, try something new! Want to volunteer more?  Join a volunteer-based organization and sign up for shifts!  Want to visit more museums?  Become a member at a museum and receive the opportunity to attend more museum programming.  Want to take on a new leadership role?  Run for a leadership position in an organization that you have been involved in.

In sum, spring is an excellent time to re-evaluate your goals and spruce up your personal brand.  If you find that you want to engage in an activity and have time for the activity, go ahead and try something new!

Law & Well Being

The Embodied Lawyer

By Denise A. Robinson


I’ve been a runner all of my life. Figures, given that my late dad was a track coach and my mom regularly does two-a-day workouts at nearly 70 years old! I used to run for physical fitness alone, but as I encountered challenges in law school and later as a practicing lawyer, I started to notice the psychological benefits of a good run as well. In particular, if I had a difficult decision to make or a complex matter at work, I found going for a run consistently helped me work out solutions to the problems at hand. I’ve since learned there’s science to back up my experience, including research showing the cognitive benefits of increased blood flow to the brain during exercise. In addition, if that exercise takes place outdoors, safe exposure to the natural world has been associated with a decrease in the body’s fight or flight stress response, which corresponds to an increase in the brain’s executive function.

The relationship between my runs and problem solving is just one example of connecting the body and the mind for professional benefit. While lawyers and other knowledge workers are hired for what’s in our heads, the reality is that we are more than our thoughts, which offer an evaluation on what’s going on within ourselves or out in the world. We also have physical sensations, which offer us information about what actually is happening. Tapping into our sensory experiences is referred to in contemplative studies as embodiment, which encourages us to understand our bodies and minds as mutually beneficial. This runs contrary to our cultural norm, which is to subordinate the physical in favor of the mental, but the tide is turning. For example, a book published by a medical doctor in 2016, The Mind Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health, explores the connection between the microbiome in the digestive system and the brain, bringing new meaning and credibility to the “gut feeling.” Consider also the example of prominent trial lawyer David Boies. As described in Malcolm Gladwell’s David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Boies attributes his success in part to keen listening skills and an exceptional memory developed as a result of having dyslexia, which made acquiring information through reading difficult. Tuning into to his sense of hearing gave him access to information that others miss, and information is power for lawyers and others who solve problems for a living.

How might your career benefit from tapping in to your senses?

Tell Me No…I Dare You!

By: Guest Blogger, President-Elect Janea J. Hawkins, Esq

I, for a long time and much like many others, hated rejection. In fact, I feared it. During my high school years, in fear of a boyfriend dumping me, I would beat him to the punch. During my college years, in fear of not being selected for the elite dance team on campus, I opted out of the auditions.  I would rather take myself out of the running – that is, remove myself from the sheer possibility of being blessed above and beyond anything I could even ask or think – than stand to hear the word “no.”   However, once I decided to pursue a career in the legal profession, I had no other choice but to face, get comfortable with, sleep with and play with the word that I had dreaded for so long: “no.”

Perhaps it first started to become the new normal to hear “no” in the law school admission process. Despite having a strong academic record, too many extracurricular activities to fit in the appropriate box on the application, and demonstrated commitment to the public service, I had a LSAT score that was less than stellar and turned out to be my one grim remark.  Not too surprisingly, I received plenty of rejections the first time around. But, I was determined to achieve my dream of becoming a lawyer. So for the first time I received the “no” that I received from those schools and said, “I’ll show you.” I took a year from graduating undergraduate school and worked for Americorps. I used that year to build my resume, retake my LSAT, revamp my personal statement and ultimately get admitted to my top law school choice.  This experience set me on a path of fueling the “no” into its rightful place in the big picture.

Throughout law school and embarking on my first full-time job out of law school, the “no’s” came faster, harder, deeper and more frequent. I was excelling in so many ways in law school by leading several student organizations and getting hands-on practical legal experience. But, when I tried to convey all of these formidable experiences to why an organization should hire (ahem, pay) me fresh out of law school, I received so many variations of “no” it became disheartening and so discouraging. The difference was that, now I had the wisdom of what “no” truly meant for me. Rather than a road block, it was just an answer. An answer that could mean that this particular opportunity might not be the best opportunity for me. This answer could just be the answer today and could very well change the next day. This answer could be the door that closes just before another window is opened. Or, this answer could simply be the stepping stone leading me to exactly where I am supposed to be. Regardless of the reason, I knew that at the end of the day, I only needed one “yes,” so who cares if there were dozens of “no’s” before that? And the only person who had the capability of keeping a track of the “no’s” was me. The hiring manager or recruiter had no idea who I previously met with, networked with or how many other interviews I had lined up. Holding on to faith and that mentality, I applied to over 150 judges across the country for clerkships, fellowships galore and any and every entry level attorney position that paid a living wage from the summer of second year of law school through to six months upon graduating law school when I finally got my “yes” for a public interest fellowship with the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia (“OAG”) – an agency that gave me my dream job. Had those judges, hiring managers and recruiters told me “yes” for the plentiful other opportunities I had applied for,  I wouldn’t have been in the position to accept this opportunity to place my foot in the door at my dream agency.

We all are too familiar with the challenge of getting your first job out of law school if you do not have something sewn up before you graduate. We are taught that the hardest job to get out of law school is the first and once you have experience, you can virtually chart your own course. Yet, close to three years at the OAG, a promotion and one divisional move later, I was surprised to learn that rejection is still alive and well. However, it changes form at this stage in your career. It is not uncommon to apply for internal vacancies within other divisions, and lose out on the opportunity to someone with less experience and qualifications. It is routine for many to apply to positions externally for which they are certain they have the requisite experience until they discover that they were one of the thousand applicants that had impressive qualifications, but were just not selected for that particular opportunity. Or many have challenges within their working groups where your colleagues are or stepping over you to get to their goal or your boss can care less about your career development. These experiences are yet another reminder of the endless rejection that we are sure to face as we continue to climb. The difference between letting it defeat you and catapult you lies in what you do with it.

The truth is: there is a teaching moment with each rejection. One day, I was venting to one of my mentors (which, by the way, are a mandate for anyone who ever wants to advance in life) about my frustrations of constantly hitting walls professionally.  She told me the importance of “growing where you are planted.” She advised me to use every experience as a stepping stone, but not be too rushed to move to the next season because in our ambition and goal chasing we often miss what is meant for us to have in the present one. Come through, words of wisdom to live by!

Whether you are close to finishing law school, recently graduated and looking for the first open door, newly in your career and searching for the best fit, or having many years of practice and looking for advancement opportunities, I implore you to thrive on rejection. I encourage you to take each rejection experience, learn from it, and receive the wisdom that is born out of it. The most mentally strong (and often successful) view rejection as evidence that they are pushing their limits. Never be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone and push for more. Let them tell you “no.” I dare you to turn it into the perfect “yes” that is waiting just for you.


Signs that a Law Firm Truly Values Pro Bono

By: Resident Blogger Jamila McCoy

There is a LOT going on these days with regard to social justice issues.  Maybe you told yourself before you went into law school that you would work a corporate law job for a few years to pay for your degree and then you would go back to trying to save the world.  Maybe you just want to do more with your law degree to help communities in need.  After working in Big Law for a several years, I realize how important it is to maintain an active pro bono practice if you want to transition to a public service career.  The key is to choose a firm that embraces pro bono (and doesn’t just tolerate it).  It is much easier to engage in pro bono when you are at a firm that values community service and encourages associates to participate.  The hard part is finding such a firm.  Almost all large firms mention pro bono on their websites and in their marketing materials, but any Big Law veteran can tell you that this marketing is often smoke and mirrors.

So how do you sift through the sales pitches to find a firm that is actually committed to pro bono?  Here are a few tips based on my experiences and observations at law firms:

1.  Look for firms that give full billable credit for pro bono hours, or at least have a high number of pro bono hours that count towards billable requirements.

It becomes very difficult to take on meaningful pro bono work if you are only permitted to credit 50 or 60 hours of your time to pro bono matters.  A high cap, like 100 or 200 hours helps, but an unlimited hours policy is a true indicator that a firm values pro bono work.

2.  Look for firms that have full time pro bono counsel (bonus points if this person is a partner!) or a pro bono department.

Firms that invest in an attorney who spends all of his or her time sourcing and working on pro bono matters do generally this because they want to encourage their associates and partners to engage in pro bono as well.  It helps to have a person at the firm who stresses the importance of pro bono work to management as well as assists and advocates on behalf of associates who engage in pro bono.

3.  Look for firms that sponsor a fellow or an externship with one or more nonprofit organizations or have partnerships with nonprofit organizations.

 Like hiring a full-time pro bono attorney, sponsoring an attorney who forgoes billable work to donate their time to a nonprofit organization is an institutional investment that demonstrates a commitment to community service.  Sometimes these programs are open to young attorneys who have just graduated from law school, but some firms save these opportunities for mid-career attorneys.  Participating in a fellowship or an externship is a great way to establish connections in the public interest sector.

4.  Look for firms that have signature projects or themes in pro bono work.

 Some firms have signature causes or projects, such as death penalty appeals, local government reform, even social media “revenge porn.”  If a firm advertises that it has a signature project, especially one, like a death penalty appeal, that requires a large amount of associate and partner time, it demonstrates that at least someone at the firm has a commitment to pro bono.

5.  Talk to current employees and alumni about their experiences with pro bono work at the firm.

 You should never consider joining a new firm without speaking to current and former associates!  Some firms advertise that they encourage pro bono, have pro bono fellowships and the like, but in reality the pressure is on to bill 2,600 hours at the expense of doing pro bono, or perhaps the firm advertises pro bono fellowships, but are likely to ask an associate to leave the firm after she participates in a program.  If pro bono matters to you, ask these questions early and often in the interview process or behind the scenes with other current or former associates.


“The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the positions of GWAC.”