When South African human rights lawyer Jessica Lawrence visited Morgan Lewis as part of a two-week-long mentorship program run by the US State Department and Fortune, she was unsure how her experience working in the civil society sector—specifically with refugees at a non-governmental organization (NGO)—would translate into a corporate law firm. But in every conversation, Jessica found parallels between her own experience and those she met at the firm and through the program.
She shares a bit more about her story and what she is taking away from the program.
I have a deep passion for social justice and making a positive contribution to society and my community. My upbringing in South Africa, which is a young democracy that still has a very inequitable society, gave me a deep-rooted passion for human rights. My mother raised me to recognize when I was able to access certain spaces others weren’t, so that motivated me from a young age to pursue public interest law. I wanted to use the law as a tool for social change.
South Africa has a lot of social challenges. I’ve been a practicing human rights lawyer in Johannesburg, South Africa for the past seven years. My experience at Lawyers for Human Rights has exposed me to a lot of diversity, inequity, and atrocity. But not everyone sees that. I would want more people to recognize that we are in a global community and that something doesn’t have to happen to them for it to matter. People in my community can be complacent about rights violations, the working-class struggle, and humanitarian crises. But everyone has the power to make a difference. If we, collectively, work on certain issues, we can achieve a lot more equity in society. It doesn’t mean that you have to be “boots on the ground”—you can make a difference by spreading awareness and sharing information that is factually accurate; supporting certain causes; donating to an organization that is working in the community; showing up to support whatever protest is taking place; and actively participating in your democracy.
I actually interviewed with the US State Department for another fellowship, that was more focused on Africa specifically. It was through the interview process that they recommended I apply for the Fortune–US Department of State Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership. Since this program is specifically dedicated to helping women develop leadership skills, I thought it was the best choice for me both personally and professionally.
Getting to meet the other mentees in this program and being surrounded by incredible women who make such positive contributions to their communities was such a highlight. These women work in very diverse areas – education, business, law, startups, fintech – but there were parallels in what all of us are trying to do and learn. Despite all the mentees coming from such diverse backgrounds, our visions, goals, and aspirations are aligned. We are linked together by our ambition to positively contribute to society. It so inspiring to see what phenomenal work these women have done.
Jessica joins Philadelphia managing partner Sarah Bouchard at the Attorney Spring Gala.
Having the opportunity to speak to women leaders and understand their experience and how they navigated certain challenges is really inspiring. I wanted to learn from their lived experiences, the passions they hold, and how they excelled in leadership. However, I was hesitant coming from the NGO space into a corporate law firm since I didn’t have any experience in this kind of law. I wasn’t sure I would be able to relate to the leaders at Morgan Lewis.
But what I found was there were so many parallels between my work and lawyers at Morgan Lewis across many practices, from commercial transactions to investment funds. Why I could relate and learn so much from various people is because the culture of Morgan Lewis and the values the firm really prides itself on came out really strongly through the way they practice and do their work. The way everyone approached the work was the same, even if the type of work differed.
Morgan Lewis’s distinguishing characteristic is collegiality. And that is set from the top. Jami McKeon emphasized the importance of credit sharing. That collaborative environment really fosters teamwork and a very collegial workspace. Jami was very specific when it comes to credit sharing that it is not portioned out per person—he did 25% and she did 75%, but a collective and holistic view that everyone contributes equally to success as a team. I appreciated Jami’s candor, sincerity, and willingness to share her knowledge and wisdom with me.
I learned from this experience how to lean into my millennial-style of leadership and, as Jami pointed out, encourage authenticity within my team. Especially for women in community, we are often led by men who have a tougher style of leadership, where compassion is viewed as weakness and you have to hold the line and be hard on everyone. My style of leadership is the opposite. I seek to be inclusive, relate to everyone on a more personal level, and foster positive relationships with other members of my team who might be more junior. Particularly in the context of South Africa where people are very diverse in the workspace, not everyone feels comfortable showing up as their whole self. Fostering a workspace where they can be acknowledged and appreciated for who they are is crucial.
Jami said this really wonderful thing that shifted my perspective so dramatically. She said there is no work/life balance, it is all life. And that made such a difference in how I will approach my team. Sometimes work takes more of your time and sometimes it’s family and personal obligations that will take more of your day. If it is all life, people should feel like they can be their whole self and prioritize what needs to be done that day. We should all work on letting go of the guilt we feel when trying to strike the perfect balance between these aspects of our life and give ourselves some grace.
New York co-managing partner Ben Indek, Almaty general director Aset Shyngyssov, and Aset’s son enjoy brunch with Jessica in New York.