Editors’ Note: As part of our ongoing Diversity and Inclusion Spotlight series, Keith Wetmore fellow from the Washington D.C. office Saqeef Ahmad, a rising 2L at Cornell Law, interviewed Washington D.C. partner and co-chair of the firm’s Financial Services Group, Obrea Poindexter, and senior associate in the firm’s Financial Services Group, Crystal Kaldjob, to discuss their mentor/mentee relationship and the impacts of being a diverse lawyer.
Saqeef: What led you to your practice area and to MoFo?
Crystal: Coming out of law school, I thought I wanted to be a corporate lawyer. I started out doing private equity work around the time of the financial crisis, but I still felt like I wasn’t getting to practice enough law. Lucky for me, I was invited to work on a project with a partner in the Financial Services and Banking Group that exposed me to the marriage of bank regulatory and transactional work, which I really liked.
Obrea: I was working at the Federal Reserve Board as a staff attorney for five years, writing rules and working on the hill. I discovered that what I liked most about financial services is that we all deal with finances in our everyday life, so regulatory and transactional needs are constantly evolving. Working with MoFo allows me to extend my practice beyond banking to various industries, such as technology and start-ups, making it even more dynamic.
Saqeef: How has being a diverse lawyer impacted your careers?
Crystal: Being a diverse lawyer has given me a different perspective on my role inside and outside of the firm. I want to help grow the number of diverse attorneys, so I try to pay it forward to students who need guidance. It’s also helped me find new connections within the firm and with clients who are women or people of color.
Obrea: As co-chair of the Diversity Committee at the firm, we‘ve conducted unconscious bias training with partners and associates. I’ve learned a lot through the training that I never would have considered five years ago. It made me realize the importance of looking at and learning from issues under the surface. I was fortunate to have a generous sponsor who didn’t look at me as ‘just a woman’ or ‘just a person of color,’ but someone who he could trust to do the best job.
Saqeef: Obrea, at what point in your career did you know you wanted to become a partner?
Obrea: When I started at the firm I had two kids and was working less than full-time. Around the time I was set to have my third child, my mentor asked me if I had ever considered becoming a partner, or if I was content in my current situation. The more I contemplated the idea, the more I realized that I really liked the firm and wanted to stay here long-term. Becoming a partner seemed like the next logical step. MoFo has generous work-life flexibility, which allows me to balance my professional career with my family life.
Saqeef: What steps did you actively take to pursue that goal?
Obrea: My conversations with my mentor helped me understand that there are two critical parts to making yourself eligible. The first is branding, both internal and external. Internally, it’s building relationships with partners both in your practice group and across other practice areas of the firm. He suggested building external branding by sharing my expertise through bar associations, trade groups, and student committees.
The second part is business development, which is essentially finding ways to leverage your personal brand to generate revenue for your practice. At the end of the day it’s all about building new relationships and nurturing existing ones, whether that’s inviting a partner to lunch or joining a new group or committee.
Saqeef: What have you learned from each other within the mentor/mentee framework?
Crystal: I like to think about our relationship as more sponsorship than mentorship. It wasn’t someone telling me what to do and how to do it. Rather, it was learning how to work together in a way that was mutually beneficial. I made it my goal to do good work and create a valuable, professional relationship. In return, Obrea gave me invaluable career guidance and advice, such as not overusing the words “sorry” and “I think”, and to be more confident in my decisions.
Obrea: I agree with Crystal that it was more of a mutual give-and-take kind of relationship. She really showed me that I could count on her no matter what, so giving her guidance and autonomy came very organically. She was a problem-solver from day one and, even if she didn’t have time to do something, she was always proactive when it came to finding a solution. I could see the effort she was making for me, so I wanted to make time to help her, too.
Saqeef: What advice do you have for young associates, in particular diverse associates, for finding those mentors?
Crystal: Your sponsor or mentor is not always going to be someone who looks like you. They could be a white male; they could be a Latino woman; they could be anyone. That’s the great thing about joining a diverse firm. Regardless of who you end up with as a mentor, there’s something to learn from every individual. You can almost always find something in common with that person, but you have to make the effort. You’ll also learn a lot through your differences and broaden your mind to new perspectives. The more people you build relationships with, the more there is to learn.
Obrea: I would start with getting a solid understanding of your practice group and the practice focus of the partners that you’re working with. From there, I would look at what’s happening around those practice areas, seeing not only the matters that you’re working on, but what other groups might be affected. You never know when there’ll be an opportunity to help someone outside of your practice area. Meet new partners from the firm by asking them for coffee or a lunch and learn. Don’t be afraid to reach outside of your comfort zone.