Lady Lawyer: Vernida R. Chaney

By Patrica Donkor

Welcome back everyone and thanks for tuning in to another installment of the Lady Lawyer!

Last month, we spoke to a Lady Lawyer that has enjoyed a successful career on the prosecutorial side of the criminal arena. This month, I wanted to stay on the criminal side of things with a Lady Lawyer working in criminal defense.  With her, I will explore the unique challenges she faces and the self-care/preservation decisions that have helped her stay the test of time.

Meet Vernida R. Chaney. She is the owner of the Chaney Law Firm, PLLC, a booming criminal practice that takes her into state and federal courts across several jurisdictions in Northern Virginia. Prior to launching her firm three years ago, she was a Senior Assistant Public Defender at the Fairfax County Public Defender’s Office in Fairfax, Virginia (“PD’s office”) for eight years. She briefly left after six and a half years to join the Northern Virginia Capital Defender’s Office where she handled death penalty cases before returning to the Fairfax PD’s office for a year and a half as a Senior Assistant Public Defender. Vernida is a zealous advocate well known for both her litigation and negotiation skills.

PD: Hi Vernida! Thanks for meeting with me.  First off, tell me where you grew up?

VC: I was raised in Richmond, Virginia.

PD: Tell me about your education.

VC: I earned a B.A. in Sociology and African American Studies from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Upon returning to Richmond after graduation, I enrolled in business school at Virginia Commonwealth University, where I received my M.B.A., then pursued law at Howard. After receiving my J.D., I began working at the Fairfax PD’s office.

PD: So, you have your own practice now, but how did you end up at the PD’s office?

VC: Well, I have always known that I would eventually venture out on my own. In fact, I was quoted in the Richmond Times-Dispatch right after graduating Howard Law, saying “I am going to work at a public defender’s office and then I plan to open my own firm.”

My dad had his own business and my mom worked in corporate America and I grew up in their offices and around their businesses so I have always had a business mindset and entrepreneurial spirit. In my teens and early twenties, I headed a few marketing and event planning entrepreneurial ventures which fueled my interest in pursuing an M.B.A. Afterwards, I went to law school, not to practice, but instead to get into business with a legal background. So, it was never really in the cards for me to practice, litigate, or venture into criminal law. However, Howard Law is known for producing “social engineers.” As stated by Charles Hamilton Houston, “A lawyer’s either a social engineer or … a parasite on society.“ While at Howard Law, I was encouraged to use my passion for helping others by applying the law rather than just understanding it. My education and practical experience was heavily criminally-focused for the latter part of my time at Howard Law that the natural progression was for me to work at the PD’s office. For instance, I interned with the PD’s office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C., and with D.C. Law Students in Court.  I was also the research assistant for my evidence professor, Adam Kurland, who is a former federal prosecutor and chair of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) white collar crimes division. So, with these experiences, it made sense for me to continue my work as a public defender where I could have a direct and positive impact on so many people. I expected for it to be only temporary but ended up staying much longer than I anticipated.

PD: How did you end up staying so long?

VC: I think because I just loved it. I really felt like I was making a difference. I also felt committed because of the lack of minority representation in the criminal justice system, in the judiciary, in the Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, and even in the the PD’s office. In a way, I felt obligated to be there. As a minority attorney, there is a level of unique insight that we bring and can offer. When it was not present on either side of the justice system nor the bench, I felt I was there to fill that gap. I felt I could relate to clients better, most of whom were also minorities, and I thought I was able to better understand the circumstances that lead them to the point in their life where they needed legal representation than my non-minority colleagues. My clients would tell me they were able to communicate with me more openly and they were more trusting that I had their best interest in mind. I was also able to educate my colleagues about certain social and cultural nuances that they could easily overlook if they were not familiar with minority communities. It then became somewhat of a mission for me to use my identity as a Black woman to diversify the criminal justice system. Simply, my being there was a revolutionary act and so I felt that it necessary for me to stay and continue to not only fight for justice for my clients, but also fight for greater diversity and inclusion in the legal process. So overall, it was a mix of love and passion for the job and a duty to be, and further, the minority presence.

PD: As you know, I am a former public defender and during my time, I dealt with a multitude of biases – sometimes they related to my age, my gender, or my race. During your time as a Fairfax County public defender, did you experience internal biases and if so, how did you handle them?

VC: Yes, I did. Most of the clients were minorities – African-American and Hispanic. There were times I had non-minority clients who felt that they should be represented by a non-minority attorney because their perception was that they would get better representation from an attorney who looked like them. So, for those clients, I believe my race and maybe also in part, my youth, interfered with my ability to do my job.

PD: Sounds familiar. How did you handle it without taking it too personally?

VC: I just didn’t let it bother me, mostly because I could understand their sentiment. My strategy with these type of clients was to focus on talking to and relating to them on a personal level. Eventually, they would let their guard down and everything would be fine. I did, however, have a few clients, some of whom had mental disorders and were deemed incompetent to stand trial, who would say “I am not trying to be represented by that n—- attorney.” In those situations, there was nothing that I could do other than continue to work with them to the extent they would allow me to and, if they objected, I would have to withdraw from their case due to the breakdown in the attorney-client relationship.

PD: How would the office handle the case when you would withdraw?

VC: The court would appoint another attorney, outside of my office.

PD: I recall one time, as a youngpublic defender, I was assigned the case of a middle-aged Caucasian woman. She and I met. I recall that I spent a considerable amount of time with her because this was her first run-in with the criminal justice system and she was terrified. The meeting ended well, I thought. However, in a few days, I learned that she had hired a white female attorney, whom I knew from law school. I knew the attorney had literally just started her criminal practice and had very little experience. I knew that I could give the client better representation. I later learned that the law school colleague told a mutual friend that the client said that she did not feel comfortable with me. I knew that her discomfort could only be because of my race, particularly based on who she chose to hire instead. That experience stuck with me. Have you encountered anything similar?

VC: I recall a former client, a young white teenager, probably about 18, but still in high school. She got into trouble and did not want to tell her parents about it. Since she was full-time student and did not have income, she qualified for a public defender. I don’t recall what she was charged with specifically, but it was a felony. I wanted her to tell her parents, because like my parents, I was confident that they would do anything to help her since she was an overall good kid who was college-bound. I eventually convinced her to tell her parents. Her parents came in, we spoke, they informed me that they were thinking about hiring an attorney but were happy to have me to continue representing her. For our first hearing, we ended up with a less-than-compassionate prosecutor who was willing to reduce the charge but not dismiss it outright and this kid needed a full dismissal.  At my suggestion, her parents hired an attorney for the next hearing. Her parents were very nice and grateful that I was pushing for a dismissal and not trying to get her to take a plea deal. Her parents said to me “I don’t want you to think that we do not want a minority attorney.” I felt that if this young lady had walked into court with a good, well-respected private attorney, she may have received an outright dismissal. I felt that what was keeping her from getting a dismissal was not me personally or my race, but instead, what I represented – the PD’s office.

PD: Wow. That would bother me, particularly because I know that our local PD offices – Alexandria, Fairfax, and D.C. in particular, and so many others – really train their attorneys up. Some of the smartest and brightest lawyers are in those offices, not because they don’t have options; quite the contrary. They are highly recruited for various positions, but instead choose those jobs because they believe in the work. How did that make you feel to tell her to retain a private attorney? How did you cope with that?

VC: I would never want a genuinely indigent client to feel compelled to hire an attorney; however, in that case, her parents were more than financially able to retain an attorney, so it was the right move.  At her next court date, her case was dismissed. Although, I was no longer the attorney of record, I continued to follow the case and was happy that this young lady was able to go to college without a criminal conviction. It was an excellent result.

PD: But I’m sure the prosecutor knew about the quality of your office’s work, seeing as though you all went up against one another every day, no?

VC: True, but sometimes there is an inherent bias associated with poor or indigent clients that may not be attributed to clients who are able to retain counsel. I know this from my own personal experience since leaving the PD’s office and now being a private attorney. I am no different an attorney that I was back then. I have the same type of clients now that I had when I was at the PD’s office but, whereas then, sometimes I would have to fight tooth and nail to get a justified or reasonable result. Now, as a private attorney, most often there is less of a fight.

PD: That’s interesting since you literally are the same person and the prosecutor can see that. Do you believe you present differently as a PD versus as a private attorney?

VC: I will say this, the optics and impressions that you give off matter. As a private attorney, I can’t afford to go to court and not present my best, particularly when I go to a new jurisdiction or before a new prosecutor or judge. I do believe that the appearance and optics that I try to present, now that I am private practice, reflects the seriousness of my work.

PD: What do the appearance and optics look like?

VC: “You need to look like a lawyer.” Plain and simple. I have this discussion with female attorneys all the time. Even when I was with the PD’s office, in preparing for a jury trial, I would go back and forth with myself: “Do I wear my hair curly? Do I wear my hair straight?” I literally had debates about how I was going to wear my hair during jury trials. I finally got to a point, near the end of my career at the PD’s office when I was comfortable wearing my hair curly during the work week.

PD: Has this internal debate changed now that you are out on your own?

VC: I just finished a trial in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria, Virginia. The trial lasted a month. I wore my hair pulled back in a bun every day until the last day of closing arguments. The trial was supposed to wrap up on a Friday, but extended into a final Monday, for the last day of closing arguments. That Monday, I woke up thinking “What should I do? Should I pull my hair back into a bun again? Eventually, I decided “forget it” and wore my curly hair down.  When I came to court everyone was commenting about how I looked so different. An attorney, representing a co-defendant, suggested that I make a joke about it to the jury, so I did. In my closing, I said “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I promise you that I am the same attorney that you have seen for the last month. I know that I look different, but I am Vernida Chaney, Mr. ——’s attorney” and everyone started laughing.

PD: It sounds like you have had to and continue to make decisions about your appearance, as a form of self-preservation. Would you agree?

VC: Yes, but that’s a belief I hold true anyway. When I was at the PD’s office, I had colleagues that wore cute dresses or ballet flats with bows and I loved it. Even though I wanted to dress similarly, I always felt the need to give off the appearance that I was a lawyer.  In the past, people have mistaken me for the court reporter, one of the deputies, or someone that worked in the courthouse. So I always tried to make sure that I didn’t look like anything else other than an attorney.

PD: So this was a consideration that you had as a public defender, and more so now?

VC: Yes, much more so now. For one, I do have clients that are paying to have an attorney, not a secretary or an assistant, represent them. Two, I think when you find yourself in new environments or dealing with new people it is very important that you give off the impression that you are a serious litigator and that you are not there to play games.

PD: Does not being able to appear the way you feel most comfortable have an impact on you?

VC: Like everyone else, it is more comfortable to wear casual clothes versus a suit and heels all day but, for me, it is important to do so. This allows me to feel more confident when I am in court representing my clients.

PD: You spent time as a Capital Defender, representing people who were sentenced to die. Describe what that was like for you. As a litigator, you are often told to keep the emotion out of representation, so to not hinder your ability to be effective. What is your perspective on this? What worked for you?

VC: I don’t think you can take your emotions out of it. That wouldn’t be human. These clients are facing the ultimate punishment – death – and it is important to feel their pain, fears, and troubles. Being emotionally connected to my clients makes me a better attorney.

PD: Did you experience a client execution as a capital defender? Did it ever cross your mind after that experience, that the work was too much to bear?

VC: Fortunately, no. All the cases I worked on the clients were spared the death penalty.

PD: Do you continue to work on capital cases? Clearly everyone is not cut out for the work. What do you think it is about you?

VC: Indeed, these are difficult cases to work on; however, I believe in redemption and that every life is valuable. My Christian faith is my biggest source of strength and guidance in doing this work.

PD: People don’t realize that a huge part of being a criminal defense attorney involves being a counselor. You have mounted defenses against the most serious crimes possible and, with the capital cases, represented clients facing the heftiest sentences. Sometimes a win in a case is getting a client a life sentence instead of the death penalty. Over the years, did you develop an approach to counseling clients, when the victory may come in the form of the lesser of two extremely tough alternatives?

VC: You are exactly right. I am a counselor to my clients but in order for them to listen to me, they have to trust me. In my opinion, the only way to build that trust is to develop a genuine relationship with them and their family.

PD: What about yourself? Do you find that you also need to give yourself pep talks to plow ahead during those times?

VC: Certainly. The work we do is hard; however, I recognize many of my clients have it much harder. When I think about what they are going through, it motivates me to keep going.

PD: Thanks, Vernida!

VC: Thank you, Patricia

Next month, we will continue our feature of Ms. Chaney in ‘Vernida 2.0.’ We will talk to her about when she knew it was time to leave the job she loved at the Fairfax PD’s office and enter the unfamiliar – solo private practice. We will discuss decisions she made along the way and how they factored into her overall self-care.

If you want to learn more about Vernida, visit her on Linkedin at

The Ethical Esquire

By Maryam Hatcher, Esq.

Dear Ethical Esquire:  I’m having a labor issue that I’m hoping you can help with.  I recently hired a very experienced paralegal, and I asked her to handle some tasks while I was on vacation.  First, I asked her to deposit a settlement check made out to Client A into my firm’s bank account, which I will give to the client once I return from my 14-day Mediterranean cruise.  Second, I asked my paralegal to deposit a $5,000 retainer from Client B into my personal checking account for a matter I will handle when I return from my cruise (the matter will end up costing my client at least $30,000, so there is no way any of this cash will be returned to Client B after my representation ends).  Upon hearing my requests, my paralegal seemed concerned that I was inappropriately intermingling client funds with my own.  My question for you is: would it be unethical for me to fire my paralegal for insubordination?

– Big Boss Barrister*

Dearest Big Boss:  I will hold off on giving you my recommendation for your labor dispute while I tackle the client funds issue at hand because it is, as they say in modern day parlance, a doozy.

Let’s start with dearest Client A, for whom you seem to have helped secure a settlement of some kind.  Kudos to you!  But do you think it is correct to make your client wait to receive those settlement funds while you bask in the glow of the Mediterranean sun?  The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct don’t think so.  Specifically, Rule 1.15(d) requires attorneys to “promptly deliver to the client . . . any funds or other property that the client . . . is entitled to receive.”  There may be circumstances in which waiting 14 days to give a client his or her entitled funds may still constitute a “prompt” distribution of those funds, but I don’t think your vacation is a reasonable reason to make your client wait.

Also, you did not mention whether or not you were entitled to any portion of that settlement check, but you implied that at least some of it belongs to your client.  Per Rule 1.15(a), any funds that belong to your client must be kept in a separate account from your or your firm’s account – this is true regardless of how careful you are about keeping an accounting of which funds belong to whom.  For the brief time you hold on to a client’s funds that are owed to him, keep those funds apart from your own.

Next, let’s move on to dearest Client B, who has paid you up front for at least some of the services you will be rendering on his behalf.  Even if you’re 100 percent confident that you will end up using the entire retainer on legitimate legal services and expenses, you cannot put that money in your personal bank account to spend on vacation tchotchkes.  Rule 1.15(c) requires that you place yet-to-be earned legal fees in a client trust account, which you cannot withdraw until you have provided the corresponding legal services or accrued related expenses.  That money is not yours until you do the work to earn it – plain and simple.

Thank you for indulging me as I went on and on about a pesky little issue you did not even ask about.  While I offer no opinion on the question of whether it would be unethical for you to fire your paralegal for insubordination, I must say that I think it would be terribly unwise.

Now – go forth and be ethical!

–  EE

*Disclaimer: “Big Boss 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.

In our next post, Ethical Esquire will tackle the very serious issue of substance abuse in the legal community.


The Lady Lawyer: Michelle Bradford

By Patricia Donkor

Welcome Back, everyone! Thanks for tuning into another installment of the Lady Lawyer!  When I decided to become a lawyer, I knew two things.  One, I wanted to regularly appear in a courtroom.  Two, I wanted to work in criminal law because by the time I completed high school, so many of my childhood friends had come into contact with the criminal justice system.

So, when the late Brian Roberts, an enthusiastic Assistant Public Defender with DC’s Public Defender’s Service (PDS), spoke to a group of aspiring lawyers at my undergraduate school, Virginia Tech, I did what any anxious goal-oriented college student would do:I asked him for a job.  That summer I worked at PDS as an intern investigator.  I returned to PDS after my 1L year of law school as a law clerk. After completing a judicial clerkship, I worked as a criminal defense attorney at the Alexandria Public Defender’s Office in Alexandria, VA for a couple of years. I ultimately switched to civil litigation, but consider my years at the Alexandria PD’s office to have been some of best of my legal career. As a young criminal defense attorney, I had begun to develop ways of coping with the stress of the job.  I’m certain that I would have revised and perfected those strategies had my career progressed in that field.

This month, I wanted to talk to a Lady Lawyer in the criminal arena about her experiences, approach to tackling the stressors of the job, and general self-care considerations.  Meet Michelle Bradford.  She is an experienced Assistant United States Attorney (“AUSA”) with the District of Columbia United States Attorney’s Office.  Since 2006, she has tried over thirty criminal jury trials.

Michelle Bradford

PD:  Welcome Michelle!  So, tell me, where are you from?

MB: I grew up in the Bronx, New York.

PD:  Tell me a little about your upbringing?

MB: We were lower-class.  Until I was a teen, we lived in the projects.  The majority of people around me were African-American and on some type of assisted support.  My dad worked as a correctional officer at Riker’s Island, New York City’s Jail Complex.

PD: How did your upbringing influence your decision to become a prosecutor?

MB: There was always this dicotomy for me.  My father was Mr. Law and Order and a lot of my play uncles were police officers and detectives.  But, then there were my friends, from the streets, that hated the police and anything to do with law enforcement.  So, it was always challenging for me, growing up, to see both sides.  I knew my dad was a great person and so were his friends, but my friends were saying things like “f— the police.  They are pigs.” So, I think that was part of why I wanted to be a prosecutor, so that I could put a more positive face on the legal system for people.

PD: What did changing the perception of the legal system mean to you?

For me, because of my dad and the work he did, my focus was always on victims, particularly with respect to violent crimes.  For instance, my grandfather was a robbery victim.  I also had an interest in the witnesses.  I would hear people say “I’m not talking to them.” It was always puzzling to me.  Why wouldn’t you want to help catch the person that did this?  Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of the process?  Is it because you don’t feel like you are valued in the process?

I always felt like the prosecutor controls a lot and I would have more power as a prosecutor than as a defense attorney.  I do think that over the years that notion has been reinforced.  I am very proud of cases that I win but I’m also very proud of the cases that I dismiss.  I can keep the case from even starting if I think there is not enough evidence or if there are problems with the evidence.

PD: How did you end up in D.C.?

MB: I went to Georgetown Law.   But, I returned to New York afterwards and worked at a large firm where I was primarily doing document review.  So, I began exploring the idea of a clerkship.  I came back to D.C. for a two-year clerkship with Judge Reggie B. Walton of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.  After the clerkship, I returned to the firm doing Labor and Employment defense work.  After two years, I joined the United States Attorney’s Office on the civil side.  I wanted more trial work and so I switched to the criminal side three years later.

PD: What rotations have you done on the criminal side?

MB: I’ve worked in Appellate, Misdemeanors, Guns and Drugs, Case Initiation, Domestic Violence-Felonies, and Violent-Felonies.  I then reached the point where I was able to apply for a senior section for a certain amount of time.  I applied to Homicide, where I was for three years.  Since 2015, I have been in the Fraud and Public Corruption Unit.

PD: What was your favorite rotation?

MB: Homicide.  I felt like I was getting to put to use the skills that I had developed as a prosecutor up to that point, both in terms of trial and investigation skills.  I felt I was giving a voice to victims that no longer had a voice.  I was working with witnesses that may not have wanted to be in my office, at trial, or involved with the grand jury process.  I tried to make them appreciate the significance of the process even if they did not like being a part of the process.  For me, it wasn’t about making them think the police were great, but instead making them understand how the system works and why we have prosecutors, defense attorneys, and trials.

I would explain to them that the system is not perfect, but we do our best to ensure everyone has their day in court, if they want it.  I met some of my most challenging witnesses, but I also got to improve my people skills.  It was definitely a very stressful time because the dislike some people have for police runs deep and you aren’t always aware of it.  They would call and curse me out.  They would call me a “b—-.”  They would say things like “go f— yourself Ms. Bradford.”  Those encounters definitely helped me develop thicker skin.  I would think to myself “Why don’t you like me, I am trying to figure out what happened.”  But for the witnesses, they have their own concerns.  They do not want to be killed because they talked to the police.  So, it required me to have an understanding of their perspective.   But, I also had to make sure that they understood my perspective.   

PD: How did you develop thicker skin?  I am sure being cursed out by someone that you were attempting to help was not easy.  How were you able to respond to that interaction rationally instead of emotionally?

MB: This was a process that started as early as my Misdemeanor rotation.  There were defense attorneys that would act rudely to me.  I was the new kid on the block and they would have the attitude of “I don’t have time to waste with you, just give me the plea.”  I recall at first thinking “Why are you talking to me like that?”  Coming from the Bronx, for me, I would think “What?  You are really coming at me.”  But, for me it helped to talk to my colleagues and then my supervisor after an experience like that.  It required taking a step back.  Being able to think through situations is probably one of the greatest skills a lawyer has.  I had learned a lot of that while handling misdemeanors.  On that calendar, there were times when I was getting insulted by defense counsel, my own colleagues, and judges.  You are literally taking it from all sides.  But, I had to remember that this is about the process, not about me.  I am not going to take it personally.  I am not incompetent just because the judge said that I am.  I know that I am smart.  I know that I am capable.

PD:  Wait, a judge has actually called you incomponent or something similar?

MB: Yes.  While every judge is different, many of them felt like all of us AUSAs were fungible.  Judges would essentially say: “Okay, you can’t do it, fine, go get another one of you.”   I’d have to explain, “well this is my case, so I need to be here.”  I would have to step back and realize that everyone can have a bad day and that there was no need to make their problems my problems.

In the beginning, there were times where I would have to go into the bathroom, for instance, and take deep breaths.  After a while, if a judge would say something I may say something like “I’m sure your Honor did not mean to disrespect me when he called me ignorant, but if I can just explain the situation.”  Some of them would respond “I don’t want to hear it.”  But others may actually apologize.

I developed thick skin by being subjected to difficult situations and realizing “well, what are you going to do.”  As I matured through the rotation, I learned this.  By the time I got to the Homicide rotation, I had been cursed out by multiple victims and witnesses.  My philosophy is you can cry about it, but no one cares, and I’m not going to cry in court anyway because that would make me look crazy.  So, you just deal with it.  I would say that the biggest thing for me is to leave “work” here at the office.  I try not to take it home with me.

PD: How many of your defendants are black?

MB: Not sure of a number, but the majority.

PD: Having come from a predominately black environment did the defendant’s race make the job uniquely difficult for you?

MB: No, because the victims were almost always black too.  Minorities are often committing crimes in their own areas.  It is rare, in my experience, that they are going into other communities to sell drugs or commit some other crime.  I am an advocate for defendants too.  The opposing side may not always realize what is happening behind closed doors in my office regarding their case.  For example, when there is a case that does not meet our standards, I can dismiss it. I go in and fight for pleas proposed by defense counsel when I really believe that the situation warrants that plea.   When we feel that we cannot prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, I have had supervisors say, “let’s close it out, dismiss it, or let’s continue to investigate.”  The people in this building want to do the right thing.

PD: Let’s talk about dealing with difficult opposing counsel.  What tactics do you employ to ensure you are able to work with counsel, in the future, after having a really contentious experience with someone?  For example, do you subconsciously put that person’s case to the end of the list when you are answering discovery?

MB: The most uncivil attorneys that I dealt with were on the civil side, plaintiff’s counsel.   I’m talking attorneys that were rude, would scream, and engage in unethical behavior at depositions.  I have not had that experience with the defense counsel, including local PDS.  They may not particularly like us, but I have been very impressed by their level of advocacy.  So, I would never say, “your client is not going to get discovery on time because you are so rude.”  That is not going to benefit anyone.  In the end, that would come back on me and I would be in front of the Office of Professional Responsibility and Bar Counsel trying to explain why I did not turn over this or that.  So, I’m only hurting myself if I do not turn things over.

PD: You mentioned that one big thing for you is to leave “work at the office.”   To me that is easier said than done.  Were you always able to leave things at the office or did you get there at some point?

MB: I got there, more so, when I got married.  Before I got married, my trend was to work in the office very late.  I also would hash out things with my colleagues.  Then, I would go home and continue to think about things.  I would say to myself “Why didn’t I say this?  Did I turn over that document?  It’s 2 a.m., should I go back into the office to check on that one thing?”  Thankfully, my husband is not a lawyer.  Early on in our relationship, he told me “When you are with me I want you to be with me.”  That was a good rule.

PD: When you had your first homicide cases, how were you able to suppress the emotion associated with those cases?  You were probably reviewing graphic autopsy photographs.  How were you able to block that out of your mind?

MB: I can’t say that I never thought about them.  I just made a conscious effort not to discuss them.  While watching a movie, I may see a murder scene and think, “wow that is similar to what happened in one of my cases.”  I may think about it internally, but I don’t obsess about it.  I think that is normal that something may come to you, in your home life.  For me, if that happens, I may jot a note to myself that says “check on that on Monday.”  However, I am not ruminating about things.

PD: Tell me about your current position with the Fraud and Public Corruption Division.

MB: There is a lot of investigating.  I am investigating white collar cases from scratch.  I still have the ability of steering the investigation in the way I want it to go.  In many of my cases, I am resolving the question of whether a crime occurred.  With these cases there is usually a paper trail and my job is to investigate the reason behind the paper trail.  “Were you stealing from the company or is there a legal justification for the paper.”  The work is interesting.

PD: We are in a time right now where there is a lot of talk about public corruption.  We are hearing it a lot in the context of the current President’s Administration.  For example, this week, the memo by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes is dominating the news cycle.  When this article is published, it will be something else.   How does the media’s discussion of public corruption issues or other topics that are similar to your own cases impact you?

MB: It doesn’t.  I know as much about some of these issues, such as the Nunes memo, as you do.  A component of self-care is to know what your battles are and what to take on.  If I were to become personally concerned with every allegation that comes out of the White House, I would be a basket-case.  I cannot do anything about the things that are happening or being said.  I am not working on those matters.  I try to educate myself so that I know what is happening and if there are mistakes that are being made, I can say, “Don’t do those things in your cases.”  Even though fraud and public corruption is very big right now, I have to focus on the cases in front of me.  Being in this role does not give me some special vantage point.  If I were to take on those things, I would never get anything done.  I could spend all day on CNN, NPR, etc., just trying to keep up with the latest.  If there is corruption it will be brought to light, if not it will go away.  I educate myself, but I don’t take it on.

PD: Do people in your personal life solicit your opinion on these sorts of matters because of your line of work?

MB: No, people that know me know that I do not want to talk about law.  My dad comes to visit me, and he likes to talk politics.  However, my friends know that I don’t.  We talk about things like our families and career.

PD: I understand that you are a mother of two now.  How did becoming a mother impact your self-care?

MB:  Having a little one has been one of the best forms of self-care for me.  It made me realize that it is not all about me or what we do in our offices.  What really matters is who we go home to, who we love, whether it is your dog or significant other.  That is what really matters in life.  Specifically, having my daughter at home and then getting pregnant with my son while I was working the Homicide rotation.  I know some people have children, yet still work around the clock.  That wasn’t my case.  Having my children was self-regulating for me.  I can’t talk about a murder with my kids around.  When we go out to the museums or aquarium, I don’t want to be thinking about that.  I want to be in the moment.  I want to enjoy it.  I know when they grow up, they will be gone.  For me, having a family gave me an outlet.

PD: Do you have any other self-care outlets?

MB: Several.  For one, I work out 5-6 days a week.  I can play Biggie Smalls or whatever music I want to hear and I do not think about work during that time.  Every morning, I try to get up around 5 a.m. or so and I try to work out for an hour.  If I cannot, there is a gym in my office building.  If I do not work out, I feel it. I am tired.  I’m stressed.  I need coffee.  On the days that I work out, I often do not need coffee.  The workout is natural adrenaline for me.

Another outlet for me is I volunteer as a board member with CAP (“Center for Abused Persons”). It’s a nonprofit in Maryland that provides support to victims of domestic violence.  I am a member of Top Ladies of Distinction (“TLOD”) and do a variety of other volunteer work (from mentoring teens to visiting nursing homes to cleaning trash off the roads in Southern Maryland). I’m an Inn of Court member and I’m on the board of my daughter’s school PTSA.

PD:  Wow and I thought that I was busy!  This has been a great conversation.  Keep up the good work and thanks so much for your time Michelle!

Ladies, read more about Michelle here Join us next month as we feature a new Lady Lawyer.  Also, feel free to leave comments for me, our guests, or with future feature suggestions.

The Ethical Esquire

By Maryam Hatcher, Esq.

Dear Ethical Esquire: I’m in a bit of a prickly situation.  I have a client, who is facing eviction, with an upcoming trial next week.  The problem is, he is being extremely uncooperative.  I really want to help him, and I think that I can secure a victory for him that would allow him to stay in his home (I’m not sure if another attorney could quickly get up to speed before next week’s trial).  However, he does not respond to my calls or emails and he has missed important meetings, which makes it nearly impossible for me to effectively represent him.  I’m thinking about just throwing in the towel and withdrawing my representation.  Would I be wrong?

– Annoyed Advocate*

Dearest Advocate:  I understand your frustration.  You want to advocate for your client, but he is not making it easy for you.  But you know what they say…no one ever said lawyerin’ was easy.

The good news is that the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct do provide helpful guidance about whether a lawyer can or cannot withdraw from representation.  Specifically, Rule 1.16(b)(6) states that “a lawyer may withdraw from representing a client if … [the representation] has been rendered unreasonably difficult by the client.”  This provision seems to apply to your case in that your client’s lack of cooperation is proving to be a stumbling block for you.

However, Rule 1.16(b)(1) expressly states that a lawyer is only permitted to withdraw if such withdrawal would not lead to material adverse effects on the interests of the client.  In your case, you mentioned that given the looming trial date, you are not sure whether another attorney could step into your shoes and be prepared to represent your client by the current trial date.  This may not be an insurmountable hurdle if the court and parties are amenable to rescheduling trial to allow the new attorney enough time to prepare, but it is certainly a significant factor that you would have to consider.  After all, if your client’s new counsel cannot adequately prepare for trial then that would certainly have a “material adverse effect” on your client’s interests.

In addition, the Rules require the withdrawing attorney to “take steps to the extent reasonably practicable to protect a client’s interests,” including giving sufficient notice to your client and allowing time for your client to hire a new attorney.  Again, unless the imminent court date can be rescheduled, you likely do not have enough time to give your client reasonable notice if you are seeking to withdraw before trial.  Not to mention, your local jurisdiction’s rules may have different or additional requirements, including the requirement to seek leave from the court before withdrawing representation.

Lastly, keep in mind that whether or not you withdraw, you must avoid saying anything about your representation to the court, opposing counsel, or any third party that could disadvantage your client.  For example, if you move the court to reschedule the trial so that your client may find new counsel, you are not at liberty to badmouth your client to help sway the court (e.g., “my client won’t cooperate; “my client won’t let me help him”; etc.).  You must take all steps to avoid casting your client in bad light, keeping in mind any ethical or legal obligations you have to remain candid with the court.

Now – go forth and be ethical!

–  EE

*Disclaimer: “Annoyed Advocate” 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 our next post, Ethical Esquire will offer tips on managing client’s money.  An important issue indeed!



The Lady Lawyer: Monica Parham Part II

By Patricia Donkor

Hello Everyone!  Hopefully your year is off to a smooth start.  Like many of you, in the spirit of the new year, I recently attended a vision board party.  It was my introduction to vision-boarding.    I used to think the concept was, shall we say, cliché.  However, this particular party was organized by a legal network of black Lady Lawyers and therefore I was incentivized by the company, more than the concept.   However, my preconceived notions were unfounded.  I had a great time!

We enjoyed brunch and mimosas as we fellowshipped, flipped through magazines, and artfully designed our boards.  Because resolutions and “New Year, New Me” talk is so commercialized, I took for granted the value of goal setting and forecasting.   It was refreshing to listen to the other women as they discussed their plans for spirituality, family, and career.   I was reminded that there are women just like myself with similar goals, insecurities, and wishes.  That is one of the reasons for this blog – a space to learn something from women, like yourself, even if you were not expecting it.

This month’s blog is Part II to last month’s post.  If you haven’t had a chance to read Monica Part I, you can find it here  You will recall that Lady Lawyer Monica Parham, is a Diversity, Inclusion, and Talent consultant.  She spent twenty-one years at Crowell and Mooring, LLP, where she held positions ranging from Associate to Diversity Counsel.

Monica Parham

PD:  Welcome back Monica!  So, I wanted to begin Monica-Part II by discussing law firm attrition, particularly as it relates to minorities. A friend of mine, a black woman, recently left her second associate position at a large firm.  She candidly reported that she felt she was pushed out of both firms. Partners seemingly had their favorite associates, and she was not among the desired.  Few partners gave her work, making it difficult for her to meet her billable hour requirement.  Ultimately, she was told that she should look for a new position, but the firm would provide her with a favorable recommendation.  Do her experiences sound unique to you?

MP: Law firms are inherently attrition models.  Most still use a rough “pyramid” model:  You can’t have as many people at the top of the pyramid as you have at the bottom of the pyramid or your financial leverage is off.   That’s one reason why it’s hard for diversity initiatives to gain traction: you are trying to gain traction in a setting that is essentially based on pushing people out as you move up the pyramid.

Do I think that this is felt by minorities disproportionately?  Yes, because you have so few people of color to start with.  So, if you take away 1/3 from an entering class of 30, you lose 10.  However, as applied to the, say, 6 people of color in that class, it’s a different dynamic and it leads to the isolation and other factors that then feed into and accelerate attrition.   With a lot of other demographic groups, you start to see attrition accelerate at the mid-level stage.  For women of color, particularly African-American women, you start to see it operate pretty much from the get go.  By the time you are talking about partnership, the pool of African-American women is so small it’s hard to measure.

PD: You managed to stave off the attrition curse.   How did you pull it off?

MP: To some extent, I had blinders on.  I kept my head down and worked hard.  I was not special.  I was a little bit stubborn.  In hindsight, that was a double edge sword.    I was focused on doing top-notch work, which is what allowed me to move to Counsel.  However, I was not as focused on building relationship capital as some of my peers and that, ultimately, was not to my advantage.

PD: Did you tune out on purpose?  Was that your version of self-care?

MP: I think it was a form of perceived self-protection.   As a woman of color in a large organization one  can start to feel very lost.   You look up from doing the work and you realize that other people are going out to lunch and you are not being invited.  You realize that other people have gone to partners’ homes and are becoming personal friends and you are not a part of that friendship circle. So, at that point, the instinct is to kind of retreat into the work.  After a while, a not-so-virtuous self-reinforcing cycle starts forming where you react to isolation by further isolating yourself.  One key piece of advice is that while it may not always feel comfortable, but it is critical to focus on building internal relationship capital, reaching out and going on lunches, etc., even when it’s not what you’re feeling – and even when you may basically have to invite yourself.

PD:  After over a decade as one of very few black women attorneys at the firm, you became Crowell and Mooring’s first Diversity Counsel (“D&I”).  To me it sounds like you did not always feel like an insider during your time as an associate and Counsel, in part because of who you are and the way you were raised.  Considering this, was it uncomfortable to hold a job where you were having to discuss others’ implicit biases related to background, race, gender, and class?

MP: Well, it was invaluable that I had stayed on the practice side as long as I had.  I had been on the practice side 12 years.  I had been evaluated, done evaluations, seen most processes from both sides.  Part of what I brought to D&I role was a focus not simply on programming, but a focus on structural change, since I’d had an inside view of the structures because I had been part of them.  Even so, some things surprised me.

PD:  Like what?

MP: I think it was the naiveté among very intelligent people across the profession regarding diversity and inclusion.  For instance, the insistence on using the term “qualified minorities.”  Whether the speaker fully comprehends the meaning or not, the phrase implies that minorities are inherently not qualified – while the lack of such qualifiers with other groups implies that they are.    That, in turn, triggers a veritable domino effect of other biases such as confirmation bias that create tremendous headwinds for women of color.

D&I is hard, because you are engaged in change management.  You often can’t just say “you are just wrong.” You are often working with leaders who didn’t necessarily have with a lot of law school classmates of color generally, and who more broadly often have had very few Black women colleagues and personal friends through their own personal and professional journeys.   They may be grappling for the first time with how to address, on an institutional level, the issues that we’ve been dealing with on a personal level for a lifetime.   You have to build trust in order to close that gap before any change can begin to occur.  That’s one reason why I feel that dialogue –  in the old-fashioned sense of sitting down and actually talking and getting real about things – is a much more powerful instrument of change than “training” that allows everyone to check off a box (done!) but changes very little.  Yes, training is needed but without the ongoing dialogue the needle isn’t going to move.

PD:  Were there frustrations?

MP:  Every day it was something.  Life became a series of teachable moments.

PD: What outlets were important to you as Diversity Counsel?

MP: Within the context of wellness, lots of people talk about work-life balance.  With Diversity 2.0, I think of it more as work-life integration.  Work-life balance historically developed around the notion of women balancing work and having children.  There are any number of things, regardless of parental status, to integrate:  your professional life, spirituality and faith, community service, friendships, family (whether nuclear or extended, biological or not), exercise, diet, sleep – the list is slightly different for everyone.  These may shift in priority over time, but the key is to identify and integrate those things that are meaningful to you into your life.

PD: In one of our conversations, you mentioned that wellness is equally important in the conversation of diversity and inclusion and authenticity.  What role does wellness play in the authenticity conversation to you?

MP:  The wellness components of diversity and inclusion are often overlooked.  We talk about opening doors for various groups, including women of color, but we don’t talk about the physical and mental costs associated with walking through those doors such as less-than-healthy diets, lack of sleep, isolation, depression, and anxiety.

Maintaining one’s physical and mental well-being is absolutely critical to thriving as a Black woman lawyer, regardless of practice setting.  Too often, self-care in the form is wellness is one of the first things to go, when it should be one of the things that we never let go of.  I started working out with Black Girls Run because for me, I needed to integrate physical fitness in a way that was supportive and non-judgmental and yet with some accountability (because otherwise why get up at 5:00 on a Sunday morning to sweat through some miles?)  For me, the benefits are mental as much if not more than physical.  Honing one’s approach to wellness doesn’t require grand gestures:  whether it’s a 20 -minute morning meditation, a brisk lunch time walk, a standing Saturday morning hand-dance class or full-blown marathon training, whether it’s more mindful eating or a new approach to one’s diet find something that works for you, use that as a baseline, and build from there.  Your mental and physical well-being will benefit.  And, by all means, never be ashamed to seek professional support on the mental and / or physical side.

PD: I am first-generation American-born.  My parents hail from Ghana, West Africa.  I am also the first lawyer in my immediate and extended family.  I understand that that one issue that is dear to you is the intersection of women of color and first-generation issues.

MP:  There are many different “first gen” layers.  Being a first-generation American, first generation college graduate and first-generation lawyer are all “first gen” issues, but the contexts are quite different.  There are, however, some key areas of overlap.  Often, there are tremendous family expectations on first generation lawyers.   Your family identity essentially becomes as “the lawyer.”  Particularly in a first gen immigrant context your “community” identity might become “the lawyer” as well.  In each that identity, in turn, may come with an entire set of expectations regarding how lawyers talk, act, dress, etc.  – expectations that may or may not comport with your personal sense of authenticity.  It may also come with the “expectation” that you not only know but can and will offer free legal advice on everything from small business matters to landlord/tenant law to domestic relations/divorce.  Though it is hard, you have to take charge of that narrative, and define your role within these various contexts.   You also have to learn to manage expectations.  Too often, external expectations can keep people in places longer than they need to be because they are so afraid of letting their family down that they lose sight of themselves and what brings them fulfillment and gratification.

When I switched from litigation to D&I, my family was initially less than thrilled and asked why I had bothered to go to law school if I no longer planned to be a lawyer.  My response was that while I would no longer be practicing law, I would always be a lawyer.   In hindsight, I realize that the question was less about what I was actually going to do and more reflective of a feared perceived “loss” – of stature, of income, of gravitas, and fundamentally of identity.  Over time those fears were allayed, but such fears can create tremendous pressure on us, especially along any of the “first gen” dimensions. Honor your family, but know that honoring your family does not mean sacrificing yourself.

PD: There are so many considerations for us Lady Lawyers to navigate.  We have the considerations that are inherent to the workplace, such as understanding the firm’s culture and try to assimilate in the most authentic way you can for yourself.  Then you have the considerations of family and community and the pressures that come with that.  What do you think are common pitfalls that lawyers, particularly minority Lady Lawyers fall into?

MP:  I always tell people don’t let the profession define who you are.  People will ask “Do you think you are a certain way because you are a lawyer?” My response is “I am a lawyer because I think in a certain way.”  In other words, lawyers tend to be verbal, process-oriented, analytical, and good decision-makers.   Those are all very good things and they are qualities that I have, but those qualities don’t define who I am as a human being.   There are a lot of other things that I like, other things that I do and other ways that I define myself.

I also tell people that there is a difference between feeling discomfort and feeling pain.  When you are stretching and growing, whenever you move in a new direction, at any stage in your career, you are going to feel some discomfort.  That is very different from the “pain” of being devalued, isolated and generally being in an environment where you aren’t permitted to thrive.   It is critical to know the difference between the two.  Embrace the discomfort of having a stretch assignment. Organizations like GWAC are the safe spaces where you can massage out those sore spots and then, refreshed and renewed, grab those opportunities for growth.

PD:  Thanks so much for your time Monica! You had so many valuable pointers and we covered a ton of ground in your two-part feature.

Ladies, read more about Monica’s work here  Join us next month as we feature a new Lady Lawyer.  Also, feel free to leave comments for me, our guests, or with future feature suggestions.

The Ethical Esquire

The Ethical Esquire

By: Maryam Hatcher, Esq.

Dear Ethical Esquire: I just opened up my own firm, and things are going great.  In fact, I had three back-to-back trial victories.  I plan on using some of the money I’ve earned in legal fees to put out a 15-second commercial.  Since I won’t have a lot of airtime, I’d like to just say the following very quickly: “I just won big for my last three clients and I will win big for you!”  My only concern is that I vaguely remember hearing something about how it is unethical for lawyers to advertise on television.  Is that true?

– Mr. Big Winner*

Dearest Mr. Big:  What an exciting time for you!  Not only have you taken on the admirable (and formidable!) task of launching your own law firm, but you have also been able to achieve favorable outcomes for your clients.  Considering your good news, the last thing I would want to do is to rain on your parade…

And yet, rain I must.

Mr. Big, as you undoubtedly recall from your education in legal ethics, attorneys have certain guidelines they must follow when advertising their services.  Specifically, Rule 7.1 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits untruthful or misleading statements in attorney advertising.  The comments to that rule clarify that an “advertisement that truthfully reports a lawyer’s achievements on behalf of clients of former clients may be misleading if presented so as to lead a reasonable person to form an unjustified expectation that the same results could be obtained for other clients.”   While you are no doubt skilled beyond measure, you simply cannot lead your future clients to believe that because you achieved favorable outcomes with one client you will achieve the same outcome with another.  This is especially true given that you have not provided any insight into the type of cases that you won.  For example, if you successfully defend a teenager with no criminal record on her first joy riding charge, that does not mean you would have the same result when defending a career criminal facing his fifteenth grand theft auto charge – right?  In short, you need to rethink your commercial script.  Just go ahead and rip it up.

And now, I give you the rainbow after the rain.  To answer the actual question you posed, advertising on television is probably A-OK (of course, check the ethics rules in your jurisdiction).  Though it was traditionally believed that attorneys should avoid advertising on television, many jurisdictions have abandoned that view.  For example, Model Rule 7.2 allows attorneys to advertise via a recorded medium.  Further, the rule’s comments explain that prohibiting attorney advertisement on television “would impede the flow of information about legal services to many sectors of the public.”  Thus, attorney advertisement on television is something of a public service.

So feel free to let the world know you’re a zealous advocate; jut don’t be overzealous about making promises that may be deemed misleading!

Now – go forth and be ethical!

–  EE

*Disclaimer: “Mr. Big Winner” 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.

Next month, the Ethical Esquire will discuss parting ways with your clients.

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

The Ethical Esquire

The Ethical Esquire

By: Maryam Hatcher, Esq.

Dear Ethical Esquire: I graduated from law school last spring and took the bar exam over the summer.  I’m still waiting on my bar exam results, but I know that my family members back home are going to be asking me for legal advice over the holidays.  My question is – how much should I charge them?

– Lawyer in Limbo*

Dearest Limbo:  Do you believe in fate?  I think that fate brought you to this advice column.  Why else would you come to the Ethical Esquire seeking advice on how to appropriately bill your family members/would-be clients?  Surely you did not think that I could assist you with such matters.  Yet you were drawn to me by some force (perhaps fate!) because somewhere, deep down, you knew that you were in need of ethical guidance.  You have come to the right place, Limbo.

First things first, you, my dearest, are no lawyer.  And to be clear, that means you are not an attorney either.  While you are no doubt proud – and rightly so – of your shiny new Juris Doctor degree, being a lawyer requires more than just a J.D; you have to actually pass the bar and, in some jurisdictions, be sworn in before you can hold yourself out to the world as a lawyer.  Even if you are already working at a law firm or some other legal services provider, your professional communications to the outside world must include a disclaimer (which can vary in nature, so check your state’s rules!) that essentially lets the world know (a) you are most assuredly NOT licensed to practice law in your jurisdiction; and (b) you are being supervised by someone who is.  In short, you have no business calling yourself a lawyer or giving legal advice.  For shame!

Secondly, you mentioned that you will be offering this illicit legal advice when you are “back home.”  Even assuming that between now and the holidays you become licensed to practice law in the state in which you took your exam, you are not out of the woods yet.  Is home the same jurisdiction in which you took the bar exam?  If not, then you may find yourself engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, which we the in the ethical world refer to as “a big no-no.”  I want you to spend some time reading and re-reading ABA Model Rule 5.5 (and the ancillary rule for any state in which you plan on practicing) to fully understand the limits on giving legal advice in a jurisdiction you are not barred in. You are walking a mighty fine line, Limbo, and I would rather not see you topple over.

Limbo, I beseech you, enjoy these halcyon days of pre-lawyerdom before the enormity of your distinguished calling as an attorney consumes your life.  And in doing so, remember – you are NOT a lawyer (yet), you are NOT going to spend this holiday season giving legal advice to your family members wherever the heck “back home” is, and you ARE going to learn every ABA Model Rule of Professional Responsibility by heart (or at the very least, refer to them often).

Now – go forth and be ethical!

–  EE

*Disclaimer: “Lawyer in Limbo” 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.

Next month, the Ethical Esquire will delve into the wonderful world of attorney advertising.  Should be fun!



The Lady Lawyer: Kerslyn Featherstone, Esq.

Happy November!   So far, the Fall is off to a great start for me.  The weather has been crisp, but comfortable here in Washington, D.C.   Likewise, the majority of my cases have been relatively quiet as the holidays approach.  However, I’m sure many of you, particularly litigators, can relate there is usually calm before a storm.  Chaos is often right around the corner.

As I await the next surge of depositions, motions, witness meetings, and trials, I think back to July when I first-chaired a two week-long jury trial.  During that time I worked until 2 a.m. every night, seven days a week, over the week leading up to the trial and during the trial.  I breathed and dreamt witness testimony, evidentiary objections, and exhibits.  Needless to say, I neglected everything and everyone around me, including myself.    It was exhausting, but no one was irreparably harmed, and most importantly, we won!  So, all is well, right?  Probably not.   Considering how drained I was in the end, I recognize that tuning out the rest of the world is unrealistic, long-term, and for many it may be impossible now.

This month, I wanted to speak to a Lady Lawyer that does not have the luxury of tuning everything out.  Our November Lady Lawyer is a litigator and mom, Kerslyn Featherstone.

Kerslyn Featherstone, Esq.

Patricia Donkor (“PD”): Where are you from?

Kerslyn Featherstone (“KF”): Memphis, Tennessee

PD: Tell us what you do.

KF:  I am a Civil Litigator with the D.C. Office of the Attorney (“OAG”), in the Civil Litigation Division.  My official title is Senior Assistant Attorney General.  Prior to that, I was a Prosecutor with OAG’s Public Safety Division from 2003-2008.

PD: How many jury trials do you have in a given year?

KF: One to two.  They typically last 1.5 to 2 weeks.

PD: When do you get into trial mode?

KF: Depending on the complexity of the trial, I typically get into trial mode about a month before the trial.  In other words, that’s when I start meeting with witnesses, getting files ready, move around other assignments, and make time for the trial.

PD: Tell us about your kids.

KF: I am a mother of identical twin boys.  They are seven years old and in the second grade.

PD: So, as a mom and trial attorney, how do you balance those roles?

KF: It’s a balancing act between keeping up with them in general, their school, staying active in my community, managing a case load of thirty cases, and trying to make time for myself so that I am operating at my best.  It can be challenging, difficult, and almost impossible at times, but it is something that I have to do.  I have to figure out a way to make it work for my own sanity.

PD: What does that look like?

KF: For me, I have a shutdown period from about 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.  During that time, there is absolutely nothing going on in my head.  This is after I have put my kids to bed.  Even if I have taken work home with me, I will wait until after that down period to do that.  I spend an hour doing nothing, reading gossip blogs, or whatever makes me unwind.  My mom lives out of town, but she will sometimes come into town, like once a quarter, for a week at a time to give me an extra hand.  This gives me time to work out in the mornings or evenings, and gives me a break from having to rush home to help with homework.

PD: We are both trial attorneys, for me, I shut down when I’m in trial, but for you as a mother of two, this may not be possible.  How do you do it?

KF: As a single mother, which I am, I don’t have the ability to completely shut down.  I have to remain plugged in on some level.  Sometimes, my mother is able to come into town for my trials.  Within a week of trial, I go into shut down mode, but it is impossible for me to shut down completely.  I would love to, but a part of that balancing is actually performing the balancing act.

PD: What would you say to our mommy readers, who are litigators or thinking of litigating, about how you handle business while caring for yourself?

KF: Being a litigator you already have toughness about you and think you can do it all, but you don’t want that breaking point to come at your cost.  You have to make time for yourself, have to have an unplug period, have to pull that hour out for yourself, you have to eat lunch away from your desk, and you have to begin to start taking little breaks.  You will know when your body is telling you that you have done enough.  It is hard to give one answer that fits everyone. It depends on the situation and one’s level of comfort.   Everyone needs to find that balance for themselves.  Don’t believe that you can do it all.  Regarding work, if you are at a place that is requiring 18 hour days, that may not be a place for you.  There has to come a time when you decide whether the employer you are working with suits your needs for your ability to make time.  It’s a tough decision, but it’s a balancing thing.

PD: Do you think you find that you have mastered the ways to care for self?

KF: Absolutely not.  That is why I am affirmatively trying to make time for myself.  I have now started to accept that I can’t do it all.  You have to find your own center and once you do you will make the right decisions.  Don’t measure yourself by what someone else is doing.  Don’t look at another mom.  Look at your situation and make sure you are making the same decision for your family or career.  You can do more or less but that does not make you less of a mom or a lawyer.  People can look at me and think, “I don’t know how she does it.”  But I may be different.  In fact, at one point I would think I’m good, I’m good, but now I am taking more help.

PD:  Great advice!  Thank you so much for your time Kerslyn.

Self-care is subjective.  There is variation depending on work responsibility, home life, etc.  However, I think we all can agree it’s important.  I’m a work in progress.  Hopefully, through the exploration of this blog, I, and maybe you, will get closer to self-actualized self-care.

-Patricia Donkor


The Ethical Esquire

The Ethical Esquire

By: Maryam Hatcher, Esq.

Dear Ethical Esquire: I just passed the bar – yay! – and I had to sit through my state’s tedious professional responsibility seminar.  After hearing about all of the potential professional responsibility pitfalls, I am scared to death of getting disbarred!  After all – these student loans aren’t going to pay for themselves!  What’s a baby lawyer like me to do?

                    -Newbie ESQ*

Dearest Newbie: Congrats on getting through law school and passing the bar!  With all of the jokes out there decrying the seediness of our noble profession, you would think we don’t care a thing about ethics.  On the contrary, becoming a licensed lawyer often means that you have taken at least one professional responsibility course in law school, earned a sufficiently high score on the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE), learned enough about state-specific ethics rule to pass your state’s bar exam, and provided a detailed explanation of every infraction in your life (from your parking tickets to that one time you fibbed to your fourth grade teacher about your dog eating your homework) via your character and fitness disclosures.  And then you have to meet your (sometimes yearly) ethics continuing legal education obligations.  Not many vocations can boast of quite so many safeguards to ensure that their professionals understand and abide by certain codes of conduct.

Nonetheless, each year thousands of lawyers throughout the country find themselves before their states’ attorney discipline boards for alleged violations of a myriad variety.  As brilliant as the Ethical Esquire likes to think she is, even she cannot explain in one blog post how each of these violations could have been avoided.  To claim otherwise would be, well…unethical of me.  However, knowledge is power and I encourage you to keep your post-bar exam enthusiasm for professional responsibility knowledge going by staying on top of changes in your jurisdiction’s ethical rules.  When you have a question about a professional responsibility issue, don’t ruminate quietly in your office until that sick feeling in your stomach goes away – seek an answer immediately!  If you’re feeling a bit lost on how to proceed, try these resources to help point your research in the right direction:

  • The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct (the “Model Rules”)
  • The American Bar Association’s Ethics Opinions
  • Your State’s Rules of Professional Conduct, which may differ from the Model Rules
  • Your State Bar’s Ethics Hotline
  • Your firm’s principal in charge of Professional Responsibility

Additionally, it goes without saying (and yet, here I am saying) that, to the extent that you have found yourself in violation of the rules, honesty and forthrightness are the best policies as you work to rectify those violations.

Ok, Newbie, I answered your general question with a list of general professional responsibility resources.  I hope that this information helps you sleep at night knowing that, while you will never hold all of the answers in your head at one time, the answer is in fact out there somewhere.  Seek it zealously.

Now – go forth and be ethical!


*Disclaimer: “Newbie ESQ” 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.

Next month, the Ethical Esquire will tackle the purgatory-like period of time after you earn your law degree but before you’re licensed to practice law.  She will offer tips on how to navigate post-JD life like a champ and avoid getting called out by bar counsel for the unauthorized practice of law.  Stay tuned!