Through our partnership with the Coalition of Black Excellence founded by Angela J. we have the pleasure of sitting down with Tucker Ellis partner Monica Williams Monroe. She sits down with us to discuss her career journey up to this point and to share valuable advice for younger leaders in the corporate environment. We also promote CBE Week, an event designed to highlight excellence in the black community, connect black professionals across sectors, and provide opportunities for professional development and community engagement.
Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach, and listen, y’all. Living Corporate is partnering with the Coalition of Black Excellence, a non-profit organization based in California, in bringing a Special Speaker series to promote CBE Week, an annual, week-long event designed to highlight excellence in the black community, connect black professionals across sectors, and provide opportunities for professional development and community engagement that will positively transform the black community. This is a special series where we spotlight movers and shakers who will be speakers during CBE Week. Today, we are blessed to have partner at Tucker Ellis LLP Monica Williams Monroe. In her capacity as local national and trial council, Monica represents a variety of corporate and insurance interests, including those of property owners, service contractors, product suppliers, and equipment manufacturers. She defends clients in several litigation areas involving premises liability, including both premises owners and subcontractors and claims arising from construction improvements. Monica also handles client matters involving general council–sorry, general contract analysis, business disputes, real estate litigation, and bankruptcy proceedings. Monica, welcome to the show. How are you doing?
Monica: I’m great. Thanks so much for having me, Zach. I’m excited to be here, and it’s a super sunny day here in California, so no complaints on my end.
Zach: There we go, and no, excited to have you here, and shout out to California. Definitely a beautiful place. Just got back from San Francisco a couple weeks ago. I had a great time. For those of you who don’t know you, and I recognize that I gave a little bit of an intro, would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself?
Monica: Sure, yeah, and thanks for reading that background, but basically I’m a trial lawyer. I try cases here in Northern California and actually throughout the state, and I’m entering my 16th year of practice, which is kind of hard–
Zach: Wow, congratulations.
Monica: Thank you. It’s kind of hard for me to believe that. I’m currently the Partner-in-Charge of the San Francisco office of Tucker Ellis, and the focus for my work is really on [inaudible] litigation, which is just business disputes, and product liability. Like I said, 16 years. It’s really hard to believe, but I still love what I do, and it feels like a new challenge kind of every day. So that’s a little bit about me.
Zach: Wow. So now, you know, would you mind talking to us–so you talked about 16 years, [inaudible], and again, congratulations. Please talk to us about your professional journey and how you became a partner at Tucker Ellis.
Monica: Yeah, yeah. You know, I was thinking about that, and just kind of even going all the way back, you know, my path was a little bit different than some others. I started out–I went to undergrad at Clark in Atlanta, and when I was in college I thought that I was gonna be in communications. I was really into marketing and PR. That’s where my focus was. My degree was in communications. Then when I got out of undergrad, that’s straight–what I went into was a media sort of focused career, and while I was there doing that work–it was really fun and exciting, but I still kind of wanted to do something different. So I had a few friends who were actually looking at law school. I had never thought about it. I’m the first lawyer in my family, and it just seemed like an interesting path for me. I’ve always, again, loved communication, loved words, and then kind of a wordsmith, and so I thought, you know, I should try. Some people encouraged me to go ahead and try and apply to law school, and when I did I ended up not just getting accepted, but I ended up getting full academic scholarship offers. So when that happened I was like, “You know what? That’s probably something I should think about pursuing,” and so I ended up, you know, going to Loyola Law School in L.A. I loved, loved, loved it. Had a fantastic experience there and practiced for a little bit after that in a few different areas. I did some transactional work and just dabbled in a few different things before I ended up at Tucker Ellis. And people really encouraged me as I sort of moved along, and when I found litigation, when I found myself in the courtroom, that’s when I really found my love, and I was like, “Oh, you can do this. You can basically get up and argue with people, and people pay you to do this? I’m in.” So when I really found my love and then found the right firm, I just matriculated through so quickly. I joined Tucker Ellis as an associate, and then I moved up later into the council position, and then in 2016 I was elected into the partnership, but for me it was really a natural progression. It was sort of just the thing I loved to do, and then I got lucky enough to be surrounded by people who really encouraged me and fostered me along the way.
Zach: That’s a beautiful story, and that’s awesome. And, you know, it’s interesting also, because I can count, like, the number of black lawyers that I know on one hand, and none of them are really working at a–at a firm. Like, they have their own kind of private practice that they’ve set up. What is your experience in navigating that space?
Monica: Yeah. I mean, I think for me it’s really been purposeful. It is a beautiful story, and I love my story, but it definitely didn’t come–you know, it didn’t sort of happen by accident. I really just surrounded myself with a network of folks, either, you know, both inside and outside of my organization. No matter where I’ve been, and that’s been true for me now, is that I have a network of people that I can go to. When I’m figuring out my next steps, I’m definitely using them as much as I can as a sounding board. People who have done what I done and then some, people who are at positions that I can only dream about, right, that I think are really successful, those are the people that I kind of reach out to and say, “Do you think this looks right?” Like, “I’m headed in this direction. This is the next thing I want to do,” and they give me honest and real feedback, and I think that that’s the most important thing for me, is that I don’t surround myself with people who just, you know, sound fantastic and tell me how great I am. They’re real, and they’ll tell me whether or not, you know, my goal or my expectation needs some more time to cook or if I really should be going after sort of that next thing. And so that’s kind of how I got to the partner level, was really just having that strong network of folks, both inside and outside of the firm.
Zach: So I’m–first of all that’s awesome, and I know for me, in my experience, having folks who are in your corner, who you can talk to, who will give you honest feedback, right? Who are not just a cheerleader section, but at the same time ain’t a bunch of haters too, right? But people who really care about you (laughing) and who actually will help you and help make sure that you’re–you know, that you’re staying on track and that you’re–when you have ideas about the next steps that they actually make sense, and they’re people you can trust, really. You know, as a senior leader who is also a black woman, do you believe that you have had any particular hurdles or challenges to navigate when it comes to building trust and establishing rapport and really building and leveraging influence?
Monica: Yeah, that’s a great question, and that’s a very real, true thing. I mean, we have some very real stereotypes and perceptions I think, you know, for communities of color and black women in particular, that we have to deal with and sometimes break through, and for me, I think I’ve learned to try to find the commonality, right? I may look different than someone else. I may–you know, maybe come from a different background, but I try to find the commonality so I can develop the rapport and gain the trust, right, of others, whether it’s inside of the firm, whether it’s client relationships. Those are the things that I think bring us together, are the commonalities, and, you know, to be sure, I am–I’ve got a lot to work with. I am a first-generation American on my mom’s side. She was from Panama, and my dad was born in the South and then later raised in New York. So I was constantly sort of surrounded by people of different cultures and different socioeconomic backgrounds. I spent a summer, you know, in Brazil one year, and then spent the next summer in Brooklyn. And for me, you know, I think my parents really–I look back, I think they probably did a lot of that intentionally, because I feel like when I walk into a room, no matter what it looks like, I’m comfortable, and I look for what I have in common as opposed to–you know, what might be different between me and the folks maybe at the table or in the room. So that’s, you know, something that I talk to a lot of young lawyers about now, is when you’re building your brand, sort of figuring things out and trying to develop a report, look for the commonalities. And like I said, I feel like I’m lucky, ’cause I have–I have a lot to dabble in. There’s usually something I can find where I connect with someone. But that’s important, you know? When you’re working, particularly in the legal industry, you know, we’re dealing with problems, right? People are not coming to me when they’re necessarily happy about what’s going on in business, and so you’ve got to trust me, and we have to have a good relationship to get through it sort of together, and same thing internally, you know? We are sort of building–we have a business and a law firm that’s built on helping other people with their problems, so people in the firm have to trust me to move things along, you know, whether it’s just in the office setting, with human resources or with clients, and we have to–you know, people always default to that. I feel like when, you know, things get tough, they default to just a common style of communication and the commonalities. So that’s–that’s what I try to do.
Zach: So I definitely–that’s just–that’s great feedback to give, because often times I think it’s easy for us when we feel–when we feel other, it’s easy for us to, like, further otherize ourselves and be like, “Okay, well, of course. Of course you’re not gonna,” you know, “trust me, because I’m X, Y, and Z,” as opposed to kind of leaning the other way and being like, “Okay, wait. Well, let’s just–let me think about some of the things that actually are common between us that I can really leverage and really play to,” and maybe even overplay to, in the spirit of creating those bonds. So when I talk to professionals–and you talked about younger lawyers, and so–you talked about 16 years. I’ve been working for about 7 years, and when I talk to professionals in my peer group–so, like, kind of, like–not mid-career, but, you know, early, early-career still professionals who are also black and brown, one of the things we always commiserate together is the feeling of not being heard at work, right? Like, we’re speaking up in meetings to contribute or we’re facilitating a meeting, and for some reason or another we’re not connecting with our audience. Sometimes we’ll even have the words that were shared repeated back to us as if we didn’t say them. And so I’m curious, have you ever experienced that? And if so, you know, what advice do you have for younger leaders trying to manage that, you know, emotionally, mentally, and professionally?
Monica: Yeah. I mean, yeah, that’s definitely something that comes up. I think in various times in my career I’ve, you know, experienced that. We all have. The first–the first advice is just breathe and try not to take that stuff in personally, right? Especially if you’re facilitating a meeting. That’s tough, when you feel like you’re not really connecting with your audience. That’s just a tough kind of situation to sort of navigate through. And it may be an uncomfortable meeting, and it may not kind of go the way that you want it to, but my–you know, the way I dealt with it and the way I talk to young folks about that is just stay true to you and stay true to yourself. And you’re talented, right? That’s why you’re facilitating the meeting or why you’re raising your hand, because you have something of value to add and you know that, and so you’re speaking up. And so just having that understanding that you are adding value to the conversation or to the room or to the group is huge, and if you stay sort of true to that and understand that, you know, it may just be that somebody is looking at you a certain way, and they’re not seeing you or hearing you, or they’re, you know, kind of overlooking what you’re saying, or it may just be that that person, you know, is not in tune or connected for the day. It could be a variety of reasons, and so–those settings too are moments and opportunities where we try, as senior leaders, right, to listen to what’s going on and to really validate, right, what someone’s saying. Like, if I were in a meeting and you were talking, and I felt like people weren’t connecting with you, I would probably jump in and say some things like, you know, “Another point that Zach made,” and I would really try to validate what you said in order to get people to hear you, because now we’re building consensus sort in the room. And that kind of goes back to that whole point, right, of having your mentors and your network and your allies around you, because people that are down for you will do that in the meeting setting, and they will make sure that they’re kind of ushering things along for you. And I personally–when I look back now, I know I’ve had people do that. I just didn’t know what they were doing at the time. [laughs] You know? And now I’m like, “Oh, yeah.” You know, “That person was fully supporting me and kind of ushering my thought along,” ’cause maybe somebody didn’t hear it or didn’t want to hear it, but then another voice came in of someone senior, and it was her. And, you know, that’s just kind of the setting–the corporate setting, right? Sometimes it’s unfortunate that it takes that, but it’s helpful to have, and I know a lot of women in particular are very good about doing that. You know, for a lot of other women of color, when we’re in meetings, they try to sort of support and really validate what the other woman has said, especially if we feel like someone wasn’t paying attention or the room just doesn’t get it, you know? So that’s kind of how I look at it. And the other thing I would want to say about that setting is it might have just been a bad meeting, and you may get through it and it wasn’t great, but debriefing afterwards is always huge. Like, if you feel like it didn’t go well or you really weren’t connecting, find somebody, you know, that you would consider to be an ally–if you don’t already know that they are–in the room and ask them afterwards, you know? “What could I have done better?” “What did you think about it?” And, you know, take it from there.
Zach: No, those are great points. Now, let’s do this. Before we get out of here, any shout outs or parting words?
Monica: [laughs] For sure. Well, definitely a huge shout out to Angela Johnson, the CEO and founder of CBE Week. This is an amazing opportunity for us to get together and not just network, but to build each other up and to improve on so many levels. So for all of the work that Angela’s doing, I just want to give a shout-out to her. But for parting words, definitely–we’ll be talking about this, these topics, at CBE Week, and I think it’s a huge opportunity for us to get together and really, you know, talk about building our brand and being strategic and thoughtful about where our careers are going, so I’m really excited about the panel that I’m on. We’ll have a whole host of people in legal positions, in diversity positions, really trying to help those, no matter what stage you are at in your career. You know, we can all use advice, right, on how to strategize and build ourselves up for the next step and make sure we have the support that we need. For me, this is, like, a true passion of mine, is trying to work with the pipeline and the next generation and making sure we all have access, you know, and opportunity, and so I’m so excited about CBE Week and our ability to, you know, talk about these issues. So I want to say thank you to you for giving us this platform.
Zach: Yes. Well, thank you, Monica, and this is awesome. And actually, that’s a great segue, ’cause that does it for us on this particular interview. Thank you for joining us on the Living Corporate podcast, a Special Series sponsored by, you guessed it, the Coalition of Black Excellence. To learn more about CBE Week, check out their website CBEWeek.com. Make sure to follow them on Instagram at @experienceCBE, and make sure you follow us on Instagram at @LivingCorporate, Twitter at @LivingCorp_Pod, and subscribe to our newsletter through living-corporate–please say the dash–dot com. If you have a question you’d like for us to answer and read on the show, make sure you email us at email@example.com. This has been Zach, and you’ve been listening to Monica Williams Monroe, partner at Tucker Ellis. Peace.