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LAW360 MINORITY POWERBROKERS Q&A WITH SCHIFF HARDIN'S JUDGE PATRICIA BROWN HOLMES
Law360, New York (February 18, 2015)
Judge Patricia Brown Holmes is a partner, executive committee member and diversity committee chairwoman of Schiff Hardin LLP based in the firm's Chicago office. Her practice includes corporate and criminal internal investigations, state and federal trials and representation of high-profile individuals and corporations.
Judge Holmes joined the firm after serving approximately nine years as an associate judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois. Prior to becoming a trial court judge, she served the city of Chicago as chief assistant corporation counsel for municipal prosecutions, supervising a staff of attorneys practicing in chancery and municipal courts.
Earlier, Judge Holmes honed her skills in federal court, trying more than 26 complex felony cases and arguing numerous times before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. She also gained trial and appellate experience as an assistant state's attorney for Cook County, arguing twice before the Illinois Supreme Court.
As a participant in Law360’s Minority Powerbrokers Q&A series, Judge Holmes shared her perspective on five questions:
Q: How did you break the glass ceiling in the legal industry?
A: I came into the legal industry in the early 1980s when large law firms typically had one minority lawyer and one female lawyer, if any. I was too naive to understand the magnitude of the problem and believed the practice of law would be a meritocracy. I thought if I showed I was competent I would have every advantage my peers enjoyed. I soon found that not to be the case. Early on, it was difficult to get the same opportunities.
But I landed my first legal job as a state prosecutor and right out of the gate wrote what my supervisors termed "a terrific brief." I then argued the matter before the appellate court and was complimented in open court by the judge. That single act seemed to change the attitudes of my co-workers regarding my skill set. I maintained an attitude that excellence and hard work would prevail and so far that has been true. Every day that I wake up and look in the mirror, I see me. And I believe only I can define my career. I refused to buy into the stereotypes or biases of others about who I am. I chose to be me. I marched to the beat of my own drum (advice given to me by a high school teacher) and tried every day to exhibit sincerity, humility, professionalism and excellence. I ignored the limitations being placed on my success and defined it for myself.
I also sought out role models and mentors who could help me navigate. I looked for black lawyers who were highly regarded and sought their advice and counsel in my career, building a fantastic "board of directors,” if you will, including icons like Judge Ann Williams, Justice Shelvin Hall, Justice Bertina Lampkin, Judge Timothy Evans, Judge David Coar, Judge Marianne Jackson and many others, who became the standard by which I measured myself. They had "done it" so I believed I could as well.
But make no mistake — there is still room to grow. The legal profession is still definitely not a meritocracy. But paths have been paved and I have benefited tremendously from the hard work of others and hope future generations will benefit from my footsteps.
Q: What are the challenges of being a lawyer of color at a senior level?
A: Many people believe that lawyers of color at a senior level are gratuitously placed in those positions without regard for their skill set. That is most certainly not true. We work just as hard, if not harder, to maintain the same level of excellence and achievement. And it's lonely to boot. Senior lawyers of color are often the "only" in the group. I have had conversations with many senior lawyers of color who share the same experiences of feeling lonely and isolated with few, if any, "buddies" at their level with whom they can go to lunch with regularly, hang out with after work, or even get to know their families. It's a small gesture that creates a big challenge in retention of lawyers of color in the profession because it goes to that one thing to which we all aspire — happiness.
Q: Describe a time you encountered discrimination in your career and tell us how you handled it.
A: Many lawyers of color encounter discrimination and bias on a regular basis just because they do not “fit the mold.” I am no different. Probably most blatantly, I, like many other female lawyers of color, experience the result of implicit and explicit bias most often in the courtroom. I've had lawyers walk up to me at counsel table and ask for a copy of a transcript, assuming I was the court reporter. I've had lawyers ask me to put certain matters on the court's docket, assuming I was the minute clerk. I've also experienced the introduction nightmare where all of the guys are introduced as "Mr. so-and-so" and they look at me and say, "Patricia, can we call you Pat?", not even giving me the courtesy of first starting with "Mrs. Holmes" — let alone, and appropriately, "Judge Holmes."
I recall a time as an assistant United States attorney trying a huge matter in Rockford, Illinois. I was the only lawyer of color in the courtroom sitting at counsel table. One of the defense counsel in the case walked up to the white male AUSA who was trying the case with me and opined that it was about time my trial partner had gotten a "new secretary." I smiled at the lawyer and responded, "No, I'm not his new secretary. I'm his trial partner, the prosecutor who is about to prove your client guilty at trial because you are not prepared enough to even know who the players are in the courtroom." That really shook him up. He had underestimated my role and he paid the price. In fact, it's that underestimation by my opponent that often gives me an advantage.
I have had occasion to draw attention to biases in very subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, ways. And I have made many longtime friends by continuing the dialogue with humor, sincerity, patience and persistence.
Q: What advice would you give to a lawyer of color?
A: Be authentic. As a lawyer of color, you cannot wear the race card on your shoulder every day. But neither can you ignore who you are and the value of what you bring to the table by adding difference. Be true to who you are and not afraid to stand for something. Don't stand idly by while others engage in misperceptions. Find a polite way to correct them. Earn the right to be in the room, stay there, and make room for the next generation.
Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase diversity in its partner ranks?
A. Be bold and deliberate. Nothing will change if you do nothing. Make a plan and stick to it. Take risks on lawyers of color in the same way you do other lawyers. Recognize that no lawyer is perfect and stop holding lawyers of color to a higher standard. Realize that lawyers of color can contribute to the valuable expansion of your business in a myriad of ways. Create an atmosphere and work environment that is receptive to diversity of all kinds. Be intentional about it. As the numbers of women and lawyers of color rise in law school and in Fortune 500 ranks, diversity will become increasingly more important to the future success of law firms. Those firms that have embraced diversity will certainly have an advantage. Realize it now. Cultivate those relationships now. Train the talent now. Change your thinking now. It's the only way to increase diversity in the partner ranks. Don't be afraid. Do it.