Law360 Minority Powerbrokers Q&A: Shawn M. Wright

December 18, 2014

Media Coverage

Based in Washington, D.C., Shawn M. Wright is a partner and vice chairwoman of Blank Rome LLP’s white collar defense and investigations practice group, where she focuses her practice on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, international anti-corruption laws, economic sanction, and general corporate fraud matters. Wright represents corporations and individuals in a range of internal investigations, audits and risk assessments, parallel proceedings and complex civil litigation, and before enforcement agencies and bodies such as the U.S. Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission. She also focuses on corporate governance issues for nonprofit organizations.

Wright serves as chairwoman for the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. She maintains active memberships in various bar associations, the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics, the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals, and various state and local bar associations. She is also a member of the institutional board of directors for Dimensions Surgery Center.

As a participant in Law360’s Minority Powerbrokers Q&A series, Wright shared her perspective on five questions:

Q: How did you break the glass ceiling in the legal industry?

A: I don’t believe that the glass ceiling will truly be broken in the legal field until the number of senior minority attorneys increases substantially across the industry at large. However, I am confident that as my colleagues and I continue to excel in our practices, and provide value to our clients, we will continue to make the legal profession better reflective of the diversity of this country. I attribute my professional success thus far to the great mentors of diverse backgrounds I’ve surrounded myself with; they have provided invaluable guidance throughout my career. In addition, I’ve been very fortunate to receive significant support from my firm, as well as resources and opportunities to strengthen my practice and continually expand and exhibit my professional skill set with a diverse group of clients.

Q: What are the challenges of being a lawyer of color at a senior level?

A: I think the biggest challenge is that sometimes, unfortunately, you’re still the only senior level minority attorney at the table. It puts the onus on you to identify people within or outside of your firm who are similarly situated to help keep the forward momentum and bring meaningful change to the legal industry.

Q: Describe a time you encountered discrimination in your career and tell us how you handled it.

A: I often like to say that I’ve been blessed twice by being both a minority and a female attorney, especially in the white collar field, which predominately consists of white male attorneys. Early in my career, I had an experience with a fellow associate who felt it necessary to let me know that he felt that I would be elevated solely because I was an African-American female — a “check off the box” on a company’s diversity profile.

Attitudes like that only push me harder to be the best at what I do and to strive for excellence in all that I do. In fact, I keep a cartoon pinned on the bulletin board behind my computer for daily inspiration: it’s of a tall man in a suit looking down at a little girl and asking, “What’s a nice little girl like you going to be when you grow up?” She replies, “Your boss.” I aspire to that message because it reminds me to rise above people’s perception of you and to not take it personally. Laugh it off; it’s not your issue, it’s theirs.

Q: What advice would you give to a lawyer of color?

A: I would advise any attorney of color to first and foremost be themselves; to be true to who they are. The cornerstone of diversity and inclusion is that, as a minority, you’re bringing something new and unique to the table. If you’re not willing to bring your whole self to the table, then you’re short-changing your clients and colleagues. Many minorities often hear that “you have to work 200 times harder than anyone else” in order to succeed. But the truth is, while you may have to work harder to prove yourself, it’s more important that you rely on your confidence and abilities to get ahead — to believe in yourself and what you can achieve.

I’ve been fortunate in my career to work with people who liked my work and kept me busy; I have worked on interesting and complex cases and learned how to collaborate with different personalities. I didn’t allow anyone to project negative ideas based on how I looked. Rather, I required them to hold their opinions until they received the product or advice. In my career, I have come across people who were pleasantly surprised about my skill set and my business advice, which drives me to continue to prove myself and my value.

Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase diversity in its partner ranks?

A: I think one of the most important and effective ways to increase diversity in partner ranks is to cast a wider net and not take a cookie-cutter, traditional approach when trying to determine who you think will be a successful partner. This advice actually goes above and beyond diversity, because every attorney has different strengths. You really have to look at what the entire person brings to the table and appreciate that people have different approaches and methods that lead to success.

We live in a world that has allowed our businesses to become increasingly global in scope thanks to technology. You don’t know who people know, and what lessons and experiences they’ve learned, until you get to know them — really reach in and understand what their value-add is. We have to learn to be more creative in the legal industry when it comes to hiring and retaining talent, to go outside of our “traditional box” and values and look beyond the objective criteria for what we think makes a great partner. Just because someone doesn’t fit into the stereotype of success, doesn’t mean that they won’t be successful. In short, if we do business in a global world, we need to mirror that trend within our firms and hire a global, diverse team of talent.

Reprinted with permission from Law360 ©. For more information, visit www.law360.com.

Blank Rome Partner Christopher Lewis was also featured in Law360’s Minority Powerbrokers Q&A series in February 2015. Please click here to read his Q&A.