Black Women in Big Law: How to Win a Seat at the Table

Recently, MoFo’s Diversity Strategy Committee hosted a candid conversation with three of our Black women partners. The panelists included Washington, D.C. Litigation partner Natalie Fleming Nolen, San Francisco Litigation partner Christin Hill, and Washington, D.C. Finance partner Crystal Kaldjob. New York Litigation senior associate Christina Ademola moderated the discussion.

The women met with a number of MoFo associates and summer associates to share their journeys to partnership and how their identities have affected their career paths. The partners also provided their unique perspectives on perseverance and resiliency in the legal profession, and how these traits helped them along the way.

Another major asset that the women pointed to that helped their career trajectories were their sponsors. Christina admitted that, early on in her career, she didn’t know there was a difference between mentors and sponsors, and she asked the partners to help explain it to the associates. Christin responded that, “A mentor is someone that you can go to when you want career advice, someone you can go to when you maybe need practice insight . . . A sponsor is an advocate; somebody who’s going to not just give you good advice, but who is going to go behind the scenes and sing your praises.”

The women also touched upon some of the challenges they and other Black women (and women in general) face in working in Big Law, and provided some helpful advice on how to navigate them. One of the biggest challenges that they discussed is having imposter syndrome, which is defined as “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.” When faced with this feeling, people can often harp on all the mistakes they have made and justify those as reasons they don’t deserve what they have accomplished. Christina’s advice is to “rehearse the good.” In other words, rather than agonize over the things you didn’t do well, focus on the things you did do well.

One positive trend for getting more women and women of color a seat at the table, is that clients are starting to put more of an emphasis on working with diverse teams.

“A lot of our large clients ask for diversity metrics. They want to know how we’re doing quarter-over-quarter, year-over-year. They want to know who’s working on their matters, who is the lead partner on their matters. They want to know whose getting credit for their matters,” notes Natalie. “We deal with a lot of [clients] who are disruptors, innovators. They want women. They want people of color because they want advice from a different perspective because they are doing things that are outside of the mold.”

Listen to the audio clips below to hear what else the women had to say about how they have overcome challenges and won their seat at the table.

Natalie Fleming Nolen: Calling for More Diverse Teams

Christin Hill: Mentorship vs. Sponsorship

Crystal Kaldjob: Overcoming with Imposter Syndrome