One Professional Woman’s View of Effective Dialogue about Race

The tragic and alarming issues with race relations in our country are effecting all of our lives, whether we actually experience these events or simply read about them or watch live footage of them on television.  As law professionals, we are often asked to step to the front to help solve these problems, in both large and small ways.  Here is one way that a woman professional accepted her responsibility.

Goldman Sachs is encouraging employees to talk about race at work, and Edith Cooper, Head of Human Capital Management for Goldman Sachs, has taken it very seriously.  Below is the article that she wrote for Banking & Finance, which was posted recently on LinkedIn.  I encourage you all to read it and to start your own dialogues about race in your workplaces.  There is so much work to do on these issues, and Edith Cooper gives us a road map for that initiative in this thoughtful piece.

As the head of Human Capital Management for Goldman Sachs, I believe our ability to create a corporate culture where people can come together to share ideas, solve problems and, in that process, learn from one another defines the strength of our organization. Ultimately, our experience at work is a collection of interactions with the people around us. When those interactions are stimulating and challenging and take place in an environment of inclusivity and collaboration, you have a better experience and, in turn, you perform better…because as a result of those varied inputs and insights, you are better.

Unfortunately, we are living through a period where, in some places, our differences are driving divisiveness. Like everyone else, I watch the news, see the headlines and am impacted by the images of communities torn apart by violence and divided by distrust. The topic of race is on my mind, it’s a discussion I have with my family and friends and it’s something that I bring to work. Of course my experience, I know, is not unique. The pervasiveness of current events affects everyone at our firm from summer interns to senior leaders. I know this because at Goldman Sachs we’re starting to talk about it…

More specifically, in the wake of the Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas and most recent events, the leadership at our firm decided we needed to provide forums for our people to share their perspectives and engage in this important discussion. With impassioned questions pertaining to race, fair treatment and equal opportunity being asked both in public and in private, we knew this was not a topic we could ignore. With this in mind, we posed the question: how do the recent events affecting us as people, in turn, affect our interactions at work?

The unthinkable tragedies taking place across our country are painful. Each new event brings with it shock and sadness, and as we try to make sense of the senseless, we can be left feeling confused and powerless. While the path to resolution seems unclear, one thing is certain – if we want to make real progress, we must engage in an open conversation about race. Through dialogue, we stand to gain an understanding of how each person’s experiences shape the lens through which he or she sees society. Conversations about race can be difficult and fraught with the risk of saying “the wrong thing”. As a result, too often people say nothing at all. But silence has meaning and can be interpreted as indifference – or worse.

I am a black woman, a mother, a wife and a professional. I am the daughter of a dentist and a sister to four siblings. I’m a runner, a golfer and a knitter. I graduated from an Ivy League school and earned an MBA. I’ve spent the past 30 years working on Wall Street, half of those as a partner at Goldman Sachs.

I am frequently asked “what country are you from” (I grew up in Brooklyn). I’ve been questioned about whether I really went to Harvard (I did) or how I got in (I applied). I’ve been asked to serve the coffee at a client meeting (despite being there to “run” the meeting) and have been mistaken as the coat check receptionist at my son’s school event. And, on the flip side, it’s also been suggested to me that I’m not “black black” because of the success I have had, or even where I live.

Early in my career, I returned home from a business trip feeling worn down. “I’m losing confidence and feeling isolated,” I told my husband. People frequently assumed I was the most junior person in the room, when in fact, I was the most senior. I constantly needed to share my credentials when nobody else had to share theirs. And, more often than not, I was the only black person – the only black woman – in the meeting. “E, pick your head up,” my husband said. “The good news is they’ll never forget you.” He was right – people did remember me. From then on, I tried to turn obstacles into opportunities and focused on making an impact at work – which I could control – rather than the perceptions of others – which I could not.

Focusing on what you can control and taking mindful steps and positive action towards what matters to you are things I learned from my parents, who grew up in the segregated South. They moved to New York with a singular goal – they wanted to raise their children free from the institutionalized racism they had known during their lives. They believed that through education the doors of opportunity would be opened; and, they were right. While I have faced some setbacks along the way, I live an incredibly fortunate life and am deeply aware of the privilege that is mine. That same privilege, which affords me extraordinary opportunity, also compels me to share – in fact, instills in me a responsibility to share – my experiences in the hope of advancing the diversity dialogue. It is in that spirit that I offer a few lessons I have learned on my journey, including those difficult interactions that seemed to be based primarily on the color of my skin:

  • Engage in this dialogue; don’t be silent
  • Misunderstanding and miscommunication can be tempered by the simplest acts most of us learned as children: listen well, choose your words with care and respect others
  • Focusing on our differences is easy and divisive; leveraging what we have in common is harder, but will effect positive change for all

I know that many people in our country are being very personally and negatively impacted by the tragic events of recent months. In the face of this, my “lessons learned” feel, even to me, more than a bit inadequate. That said, I honestly believe that a mandatory first step in addressing the issues surrounding race is conversation – because honest dialogue reaps understanding and understanding reaps progress.


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Thought For The Day

“Pray not for easy lives, pray to be stronger men.”

John F. Kennedy

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Thought For The Day

“The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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A “Conversation” with an Accomplished Woman Lawyer and a Powerful Businessman

You may have noticed that I don’t get into politics in my work.  My goal is to be a voice for the retention and advancement of women lawyers, and I know that my audience is diverse in terms of political persuasions.  Waxing on my political views risks cutting me off from part of that audience and defeating my mission.  I just do not do it.

Today, however, I want to talk to you about a political event that involved an accomplished woman lawyer having a “conversation” with a very powerful businessman.  My message is not about politics or policies.  It is plain and simple about demeanor and how you handle yourself as a woman professional.  You will encounter the kind of behavior I describe many times in your career, and I believe that there was a lot to be gained from watching the presidential “conversation” that occurred last night before a television audience of more than 80 million people.

As a woman lawyer, you will be baited many times by larger and stronger competitors who will try to push you back and off your mark.  You need to be ready for it.  You must be totally professional and make your arguments in a respectful manner.  You must not give into your urges to react in kind because you know that the “B” word is poised on tongues ready to be released to attack you.  No negative body language, no smirks, no condescension, no constant interruptions, and, most important, no slurs of any kind, especially gender.  To quote someone else who undoubtedly was watching last night, “When they go low, we go high.”  Make that your mantra, as difficult as it might be, and practice your smile.  Hopefully there will not be a split screen in the deposition room when your time comes, but, if there is, you will be prepared for it.

Of course, I appreciate that you are an advocate — for your clients and for yourself in terms of your career goals —  and there will be times when you cannot give up the opportunity to take your “best shot.”  Scoring for your team with a winning shot — think hockey, basketball, lacrosse —- is a good thing.  It is positive in its literal sense, but too often it becomes negative in business because of ill-conceived demeanors.  When you have the opportunity to take your best shot, do it with dignity.  There is nothing to be gained by raising your voice and pointing your finger.  Hands on hips in an aggressive stance will not do you any good.  Go high.  Make your point in a professional way, and move on.

There is so much to learn from a “conversation” between an accomplished woman lawyer and a powerful businessman.  Both have their detractors, but both can teach you a lot.


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Have Women Lawyers Lost Something on Their Way to Becoming Leaders?

This article from The Atlantic caught my eye on my news feed earlier this week.  It addresses what the writer thinks women have lost in advancing their opportunities in the workplace.  It is a historical perspective, but the message is meant to be very au courant.

Although I have my own thoughts on the downside for women as we struggled to take our places at the tables of power in law and business and some of the messages that worked against the causes we were trying to advance, I have not given much thought to the kind of loss that is addressed in The Atlantic article.  I think I should have, and, as a result, I think you should, too.

You all are familiar with the balance themes that I and others write about.  But this is different.  The question posited in this article is how much can women advance in the workplace without leaving other valuable contributions on the cutting board?  But it is not the typical contributions to home and family that is addressed in this piece.  Rather, it is contributions of a different, albeit related, nature like the benefits of community involvement and volunteerism?  The article compels the reader to ask how important those other things are, to both individuals and to society.  In other words, we know that it is almost impossible to be committed to careers in law and business and also have time for the Girl Scouts, the community board or the grass roots political cause, but should we care?  Should we strive to do something about it?

I am surprised that I had not focused on this before.  I have devoted a huge amount of time and effort to charities and community concerns over my career as a lawyer, and it has enriched my life.  I have volunteered at the lowest levels and also been on boards of directors for a music association, a women’s charity, a civic association and, now, a land and conservation trust.  Honestly, I do not know who I would be without this kind of involvement.  But, that does not make it easy, and that does not make it for you.

However, I think you would gain some valuable perspective just by reading the article.  It is lengthy, so I will share the last paragraph with you.  It is good food for thought.

As women have taken greater positions of leadership in the United States, they have also left a leadership vacuum behind them. In middle-class, highly educated communities, women may be busier and more tired than their mothers and grandmothers once were, but they mostly figure out ways to advocate for their kids at school-board meetings or volunteer to chaperone a class trip to the zoo. The people who have suffered most aren’t white and well-off; they’re lower income, poorly educated, and largely disconnected from the rich network of membership-based associations that used to provide both a local sense of community and a national voice in politics. Women in these positions have lost access to one of their only means of gaining leadership skills. And while many of their educated, wealthier peers now have alternatives to the suffocating housewife’s life that so enraged Betty Friedan seven decades ago, some experience it as an opposite kind of suffocation: a never-ending, ladder-climbing work life, the height of which is making money for someone else rather than building a world in which they’re invested.

Tell me what you think.  In October I will be speaking at a DirectHer Network event in Washington, DC.  The members of the DirectHer Network work tirelessly to place women on corporate boards of directors where the can utilize their invaluable leadership skills.  I will be happy to include your comments in my remarks there.



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Thought For The Day

“Firms don’t seem to be moving that fast to be flexible.  [Attorneys with young children could] make it known and illustrate by example that you can have a home life and a work life.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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Thought For The Day

“Labels can be facile and can lead to non-think on the part of the public.”

Edward Albee, acclaimed playwright, who died on September 16, 2016

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Women Lawyers: Welcome to the Practice!

So many new law graduates started jobs in law firms within the last few weeks, and many of them are young women.  They are enthusiastic and energetic, but they know little about the jobs they are being asked to do.  Law school teaches a lot of substance, but most law schools are still very short on practical application and hands-on experience.  This can lead to a lot of insecurity within the throes of new lawyers who walked into the hallowed halls of law firms in the last few weeks.

That is to be expected.  If you are one of them, please know that you have lots of company.  Also know that people try to hide their insecurities in different ways.  Some of them overcompensate by being boastful and constantly calling attention to themselves.  You know them — you met many of them in law school.  You also will recall that, for the most part, they did not end up at the top of the class.

Others compensate for their insecurities by withdrawing into their offices and hoping that the waves of insecurity recede rapidly.  Although this is tempting and does not require much in terms of effort, you do not want to be one of them.  Unaddressed insecurity breeds more insecurity.  You need to get up and get going.  You only get one opportunity to make a positive first impression.

Here is some of my best advice to you in these early days of your chosen career.

You have been given a great opportunity. Yes, you earned it, but you also have been fortunate. Do not ruin it by expecting too much too quickly and over-analyzing the meaning of these early days within the context of what will be a long career. Be positive and take advantage of every opportunity to learn and to grow. You have no idea where it will take you, but you need to have faith in your decisions. Keep an open mind on the work that is given you and don’t prejudge. Use the power of your personality and personal skills to get out of your comfort zone to make friends and create alliances. It will take a conscious effort, but you can do it.

Game on!  Being happy in your work is important to your life.  Your first career choice is not necessarily your ultimate choice, and your trajectory in the law profession is likely to follow the current pattern of being somewhat dynamic.  Make every experience count.  Get the most out of where you are in the moment and consider everything as valuable to your next experience.  Regrets are a useless waste of time.  Avoid them by being strategic about the value of your experiences.

Also remember that your work is not your life.  That is why it is called “work.”  There is so much more to your life, and you have to protect your non-working life as well.  It is true that in your first years of practice you must toil especially hard to create value and set up options for your future.  But, do not put your non-working life so far on the back burner in terms of priorities that you will not be able to resurrect it.  You need both a satisfying working and non-working life to be happy.

You also may enjoy this article from The American Lawyer about what makes midlevel associates happy.  That is the next step for you.  Here are some of the things that were identified as adding to the happiness of associates in firms around the world:

  • Their average salaries, bonuses, and hourly rates increased faster than their billable hours;
  • Their firms have lockstep compensation systems for associates, which create collaborative environments;
  • Interesting work, effective mentoring, good relations with partners, support for pro bono work, expanded training programs (including presentations on law firm economics), emphasis on personal skills as well as technical ones, more in-office get-togethers with partners and associates, 360-degree associate performance review processes; and
  • Some also reported $1000 technology allowances to help associates work more easily from home.

That’s a lot to think about.  Good luck to all of you.

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