Which Box to Check? Maryann Zaki on What Morgan Lewis’s MENA Lawyer Network Means to Her

April 19, 2022

The same year the US Department of State recognized April as National Arab American Heritage Month, Morgan Lewis associate Maryann Zaki helped formally launch the firm’s Middle Eastern North African Lawyer Network.

Informed by her experience struggling with “which box to check” when identifying her background on employment and other forms, Maryann was inspired to create an opportunity for lawyers at the firm to connect with people from Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) backgrounds.

In this We Are Morgan Lewis feature, Maryann shares what the firm’s network means to her.

You helped start the Middle Eastern North African Lawyer Network in 2021 along with partner Ayman Khaleq. What led you to help steer the launch?

For my entire life, when confronted with choices to select for “ethnicity” or “race,” I’ve never been able to find the answer that truly reflects how I view myself (the EEOC includes people of Middle Eastern origin as “White,” but many Middle Eastern people do not feel that accurately reflects who they are). When I joined Morgan Lewis, I somewhat comically decided to try a new approach by penciling in my own box for “Middle Eastern” on my new hire paperwork.

As I became more entrenched at the firm and saw how inclusive the culture is, it became a goal of mine to create an affinity group for people who connected with the Middle East. In early 2021, we made it happen. I had already met so many lawyers at Morgan Lewis who were on board with the idea, so all it took was a few emails to some of my great firm mentors—Michelle Pector, Ayman Khaleq, and Amanda Smith—and before I knew it, we were off!

The support from these individuals—partnered with the constant and resounding support of Firm Chair Jami McKeon—made it happen. In just a few months, we were already hosting our first virtual event to welcome the 2021 summer associates, who shared how happy they were to see there was a “MENA” box for them to check when they joined the firm. That made the effort completely worth it.

Why is a network like this so important to have in the professional space, and particularly in the legal space?

Practicing law can be difficult. When we get in the trenches, it can be so easy to lose sight of all the support we have around us. Oftentimes, it makes such a big difference knowing that you actually have a family of people standing around you.

For many members of our group, we are the first lawyers in our families, and quite often the only people of Middle Eastern heritage in our practices. Having a close-knit network of Morgan Lewis lawyers that understand our culture, heritage, and the values that are important to us is so comforting. It’s also so fun to laugh with one another over funny Middle Eastern videos. Ayman has also recently introduced me to some of the coolest Egyptian music that I never even knew existed—and I’m Egyptian!

How has the network helped connect our lawyers all over the world?

It’s been really amazing to see so many people join in just a few short months. We have more than 40 members from 13 offices, spanning so many practice areas. Perhaps the best part is that no two of us have the same story.

So many of us are from different countries, with varying stories of how our families immigrated into the United States. But the rich Middle Eastern heritage we share binds us together. Something I have enjoyed is that we have encouraged our members to submit short bios on our internal network page, which has really allowed us to get to know one another better. Our members represent Egypt, Dubai, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Greece—just to name a few.

After just a few virtual meetings, we already feel that we’re a family, even though many of us have never met in person. Having that safe space in such a large and prestigious law firm has been a privilege. It has also provided unique opportunities for mentorship, networking, and client service that otherwise might not have occurred.

You launched the network during a time when much of the world was still operating virtually. Were you able to host events?

Yes! Given that most of our members are spread out around the world, it has actually been a great benefit to meet virtually. The only tough part has been finding a good time that works across all the different time zones.

So far, we’ve hosted a virtual tea tasting to welcome the summer associates, had a meeting in February where everyone shared their goals for 2022, and we’re looking forward to a virtual Q&A partner panel this month to celebrate Middle Eastern and Arab American Heritage Month.

What other initiatives were you able to accomplish?

We celebrated the winter holidays by sending holiday baklava to all of our members, which everyone enjoyed. We also sent out our first internal newsletter where we highlighted members of our group for recent client, personal, and professional accomplishments. Our constant goal is to celebrate and uplift one another.

What else is part of your mission?

When Ayman and I wrote the mission statement, we made sure the group was open to anyone who “identifies” as Middle Eastern. We wanted to capture the lawyers who might not necessarily come from Middle Eastern heritage but may still be associated with the culture through family ties, or might even just love Middle Eastern culture. There is no specific criteria necessary to join—especially given that “Middle Eastern” can geographically mean different things to different people.

What can Morgan Lewis lawyers outside of the network do to be allies and uplift the network’s work and message?

Lawyers outside the network can join us in celebrating and better understanding our culture. As a group, we are researching and learning more about the EEOC classification, delving into the history (there have been previous efforts to add a Middle Eastern category to the US Census), and learning more about how the Middle Eastern community views the issue.

We invite members of the firm to join us in this journey of learning more about our culture and celebrating our rich heritages.