Our People

How to Be an Ally in the Fight for Equality

June 16, 2020

In partnership to our shared commitment to diversity and inclusion (D&I), Morgan Lewis labor and employment head Grace Speights spoke with a group from Bank of America (BofA), Morgan Lewis, and other law firm leaders about how to have “courageous conversations” and the importance of good leadership and sponsors to improve D&I. Morgan Lewis and BofA have long collaborated on diversity leadership programs, unconscious bias training, and educational pipeline programs. Here is an abbreviated version of that conversation between Grace and Michele Bianco, Associate General Counsel and Managing Director at Bank of America; and Claude Kavanagh, Equities Counsel, Global Banking and Markets at Bank of America.

BofA: Did you always think you’d become a Big Law lawyer?

Grace: I’m not a betting person, but if I were, I would never have bet on me getting to where I am today at Morgan Lewis. I wouldn’t have guessed I would be a lawyer or have progressed the way I have in my career given my background. I grew up in South Philly, about nine blocks from the Morgan Lewis Philadelphia office, but it was really a LONG way from the office.

I was raised by a single parent, my mom—who is 95 and still alive and I thank God every day for her health and strength. Even though she only had a seventh-grade education, she was a hard worker in a drapery factory six days a week, and was determined that her young child was going to get out of the neighborhood. I used to walk around the drug deals, over the homeless, and dodge bullets on the way to the playground. The neighborhood was plagued with gang warfare, and I witnessed numerous instances of violence against blacks, including by law enforcement.

BofA: You mention seeing incidents of police brutality against African Americans growing up. How does the current situation in America make you feel?

Grace: My first reaction to the George Floyd killing was anger, but staying angry doesn’t accomplish anything. My second reaction was fear, because I have a 32-year-old Black son. He’s a big guy, played football, wears his afro in a pony puff, and likes to wear a hoodie. I have fear as a mother.

Having said that, I have now gotten beyond the anger and beyond the fear and I’m rejuvenated and reinvigorated. What this moment in history has said to me is that I individually and my law firm as an institution need to be doing more in terms of racial justice. We’ve always done pro bono work, which is great, but not a lot of it has been in the area of racial justice. My focus going forward will be on racial justice. But it’s not going to happen overnight. All of us need to do something.

BofA: How can we do something?

Grace: Individually, and as organizations, putting money behind our words is important, and Bank of America is a wonderful example of that. There is a lot of room for organizations to partner with their law firms, and for lawyers to best use our skills for “impact litigation.” Lawyers can deal with issues around bail, qualified immunity, and obstacles to removing bad apple cops from the force. I think we will be more powerful if we join forces to do it together. Make sure your organizations are having conversations about how to do things better. If we all don’t get involved right now, we are making a big mistake.

BofA: How can organizations start or enrich those conversations?

Grace: Unfortunately it took these events for people to start thinking about courageous conversations. Of course we have had D&I initiatives for a long time, but there weren’t discussions about race and racial justice. So I’m hoping organizations will take this opportunity to have hard conversations. It is the responsibility of leadership to be intentional. At our firm, our Chair Jami McKeon sent out a firmwide message within days of the news breaking of George Floyd and she and I personally called our practice leaders to make sure they were reaching out to our Black lawyers to have those conversations. We need to be reaching out. And it starts at the top. There is no other way to do it.

There has to be deliberate focus to look at your processes and hold your partners and leaders accountable to promoting diverse mentees. You have to expect people to do this. You have to hold them accountable for what they can do to remove barriers.

BofA: How can mentors help remove those barriers?

Grace: To be an ally, you have to be educated. There is a lot of good reading out there about how to be an ally, especially regarding racial justice. You have to feel comfortable – you have to be willing to reach out and talk about these issues.

When I joined the firm 37 years ago, there was only one other lawyer who looked like me, who had my skin color. There was not one thought of D&I initiatives at any law firm, and not at Morgan Lewis. Fortunately, there were partners I worked with that didn’t need D&I initiatives to invest in me.

There was one mentor who was assigned to me, and he was the head of the labor and employment group at the time and had been called the best labor and employment lawyer in the galaxy. He was so busy, but he always reached out to me, long after we stopped working together and I moved to another office. He put his reputation on the line for me and made sure I got opportunities at the firm. He, and my other mentors, didn’t need D&I initiatives to do this for me. It came naturally to them because of the people they were. When I decided Morgan Lewis was where I wanted to stay, my mentors advised me on the long haul – which clients I should approach, which partners I should work with, and that continues today. Even as a senior lawyer, I still have a sponsor in Jami McKeon who provides guidance and opportunities for me to this very day.

As a first-generation high school, college, and law school graduate, I knew nothing about law firms or how to be successful in them. Having good mentors was so important. And what made them exceptional is that I didn’t have to go to them to ask for advice, they came to me. That is so important today for mentors to be the ones reaching out. The most powerful thing you can do during uncomfortable conversations is to listen. No one is looking to you for all the answers. But to break down the barriers, they have to know you want to learn.