Leading an Unboxed Life: Interview with Lawyer, Model, and Human Rights Advocate, Jesyka Harris

Sigalle Barness | November 16, 2022

In this week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle interviews Jesyka Harris, lawyer, fashion model, TV host, content creator and human rights advocate. Jesyka shares her journey growing up as a mixed race biracial woman with a mission to use her strong sense of justice for good. Jesyka’s compelling story of “breaking out of boxes and leaving labels behind” has become the mantra with which she lives her life, helps others, and builds stronger communities. Listen to the full interview or read highlights of the interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.

 

On Gratitude

Superhero Morning Bike Rides With Her Son

 

My son is my favorite moment out of every day. Even the bad moments. He is my joy. We rode bikes this morning. He has a little Spiderman bike and he loves Spidey and Friends. He calls me "Ghost Spider Mommy" because she's part of the team. I bought a brand new bike that actually looks like it's the same colors as ghost spiders. So we ride our team Spidey bikes together in the morning and that's always a beautiful way to start today.

 

On Her Lawyer Origin Story

“I Had A Really Strong Sense Of Justice”

 

I think in some capacity, I always knew that I wanted to be involved in the legal field because even when I was younger, I had a really strong sense of justice. A lot of other kids, you know, when you ask them what they want to be when they grow up, they will say something like a fireman, a police officer, a movie star, a singer, and I wanted to be Martin Luther King Jr.

I was always a toss between Martin Luther King Jr. And then Malcolm X as I got older because racial justice and empathy has always been a big theme of my life and in my family, and I'm an empath, so I started volunteering and just wanting to do things for other people in my community from the time I was a really small child.

And in college I got to blossom and really explore and be exposed to all kinds of different nonprofits and volunteer groups, and USC encourages that. It's a big part of the culture at USC. So I found my place in volunteering and community work and human rights activism. So I don't necessarily know that law was the goal. By the time I got to Washington DC I was working for the State Department, I was headed to the Foreign service. The foreign service, or it was gonna be the Peace Corps. It was gonna be something like that.

 And everyone in Washington, D.C. is a lawyer. So I was strongly encouraged to go to law school because you know, everyone told me you will be able to do the work that you wanna do and be a more effective advocate. You'll be able to get more done, you will be able to help people in a greater capacity. So that was really appealing to me. 

And then I chose Columbia Law School because they have like the best human rights clinic in the world, and even their L.L.M program is centered on human rights and social justice, and I think a lot of people come from all over the world for that part of the school. So that was how I ended up in law school. 

 

On the Importance of Racial Justice to Her Family 

A Family Core Value of Building Alliances and Developing Relationships

 

On a very simple, basic level. For me, it just looked like empathy and compassion because I didn't experience a lot of that when I was a kid. My dad is black and very dark and my mom is white and very light, and I am smack in the middle. The people my age who are mixed race, you know there weren't many of us when I was growing up and people did not understand that.

And people typically, when they don't understand things that are different, they are afraid of it. And they can be very cruel. So we had a lot of discussions in my house about race and what it meant to be human and compassionate and kind, and treating people the way that we wanna be treated. And being an example for the community and not making ourselves small and just disappearing because we were afraid, but more building alliances and developing relationships as the most effective way to grow people and grow together and grow with your community. 

I think that was a really core value that my parents raised me with. So it wasn't just like smile in their faces. It was like, you know what? We're gonna befriend these people and we're gonna get to know them and we're gonna be rock stars in this community and show them who we are inside as a way to change these really just kind of ignorant perceptions about us.

 

On the Immense Impact Her Father Had on Her Journey

“He was such a shining example of so many things that I want to be.”

 

My dad is a really special person. He grew up in Harlem in the projects, and he was in the Vietnam War. So I think he's just seen a lot of life.

And when you go through tremendously difficult experiences, like the ones that my dad went through, I think you have a choice. You can become bitter and hardened and jaded and angry, or you can find the lesson in it and find a way to overcome and transcend that. And then once you do transcend those hardships, I think it's natural for you to want to help other people overcome hardships.

My parents are pretty special. I'm really grateful for them. My dad actually just passed away on the 4th of July. Melvin Harris. His passing has inspired me to just refocus on what I am most passionate about, what I value, how he raised me, and how he lived. He was such a shining example of so many things that I wanna be, and I am so much of him. 

And my dad taught me about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. In black families, typically we have to give our kids our own education because the education system has really failed to give an accurate, full and fair representation of what the racial history is in this country. So I think that was a big part of it too. 

 

On Being an Empath

It’s being able to say “I may not know what it feels like, but you as a human being matter to me. Your experience matters to me.” 

 

For me, being an empath simply means I feel what other people feel. I feel it deeply, and most importantly, it's not even something I have to try to do, I just put myself in other people's shoes. 

One of the things that I try to teach when I mentor and when I talk about the human rights causes that I care about is you shouldn't have to experience what somebody else has experienced in order to care. That's empathy. It's me being able to see you and see your struggle and say, I care. I may not know exactly what you've been through. I may not know what it feels like, but you as a human being matter to me. And your experience matters to me. 

I've always been, you know, quote, unquote too sensitive, which now I'm realizing is a superpower. But, you know, growing up in the nineties, like being too sensitive was not a positive thing. So it's tough when you feel things. That was just the core of the way I was. 

 

On the Paradox of Lawyer’s Advice to Being a Lawyer

“Attorneys are encouraging you to become a lawyer and touting their profession, and at the same time, they're discouraging you”

 

So almost everybody that you meet [in D.C.] is an attorney and it's so funny. There's this very interesting paradox where all of these attorneys are encouraging you to become a lawyer and touting their profession, and at the same time, they're discouraging you. Like, "Oh, but you know, you should find something else to do." Like in the same breath, they'll tell you like, Oh, law school's great and you can do so much with your degree, but don't go to law school. 

I think [the reason why is because] a lot of lawyers are miserable. They don't like the profession. I think it's oversaturated. I don't think that most people should become lawyers. I think a lot of people choose the legal path because it seems stable and the money is great.

 

On Wanting to Work in NonProfit … and Ending Up in BigLaw

BigLaw Knows How to Make a Good Pitch and Sale

 

Well, okay, so, you know, I think a lot of people go to law school feeling the way I feel. Like I'm going to make a difference in the world. There's two camps of people, the lawyers who wanna make money and they know their trajectory, and the people who wanna make a difference and help people. I'm in the second category. 

And it's so interesting, I love telling this story. When we were at orientation, our classes were only like maybe 150, 200 people max? And they asked the audience to raise their hand. How many people were intending to go into nonprofit public service work? There was a significant number of us, I wanna say maybe 20 to 30. And we all knew each other and we were all friends because we were doing the human rights clinics together. We were doing pro bono work together. We were taking similar classes. And by the time we graduated, I feel like only a small handful ended up doing something in the nonprofit sector or working for an NGO. I mean like maybe three or four. 

I can only speak for myself. It wasn't just about student loans, which is a significant part of it, especially as somebody who is not wealthy. I don't have a large trust. I actually had to take out $200,000 in student loans to go to law school. But when all of the best law firms in the world come to recruit from Columbia, obviously it's the second-best law school in the world, so they have a great pitch, they make a good sale. And for me, they knew how to pitch me.

And the pitch was, we know you're basically a bleeding heart, human rights activist, and we think that's great. But if you come to our firm, we will train you to be an excellent lawyer and you can be a better advocate. You can do the kind of work that you wanna do, and you'll be better at it. You'll have better training, you'll have a better resume.

Meanwhile, you're paying off your student loans, and our firm loves human rights, pro bono work. You can do all the pro bono work you want, as long as you meet your billables. 2000 hours a year. So I bought it. It sounded like a great deal. 

 

On the Reality of BigLaw

“It’s Not Sustainable”

 

But once you get there, you realize, at least back then, the culture in a lot of these big law firms is pretty horrendous. You're hazed. It's not sustainable. Their entire business model is built on pushing people out early. They don't want you to make a partner. They don't want you to stay. It's like what one person out of every incoming class might make partner someday? So, you know, pro bono is something that you can do if you don't wanna sleep because it's not possible. I was already sleeping under my desk. 

And it's crazy. Like in the same year, one of my best friends who could have made partner at a similarly big law firm, she basically committed herself to a psych ward because she wanted to kill herself. My other friend had a massive heart attack at 32. And he worked for a top law firm in New York City. And I was seeing this kind of pattern. I just said, there's no way, and it's not even taking me to where I want to go. I was at the firm for a total of two years. And after the first year, I realized it wasn't sustainable and I was gonna be gone pretty soon. 

 

On Moving from BigLaw to Smaller Firms

An Incredible Experience that Lead to an Important Realization

 

I left the big firm and I wanna say maybe like a year later, I had the privilege of working for a litigator. His name's Paul Murphy and he's one of the best litigators in the country, hands down. It was a very, very small firm. There were only like five of us. I switched to Paul’s firm thinking, okay, it's not the [legal] profession, it's just the workplace. And I loved the people that I worked with at Paul Murphy's firm. And it was such a great culture. So I thought, Okay, this is it, you know, this is where I will thrive and succeed. 

Paul was one of my mentors. We're still personal friends. He was one of those people who was just born to be a lawyer. He loves it. He's great at it and he's just a superstar. But when you work in close proximity to somebody like that, you really see, oh my gosh, this is what it looks like to wake up every day and feel so fulfilled and excited by what you do. It's not about the money. It's not about the prestige. And I told him, I said, watching you makes me realize like this wasn't the right profession for me. 

Realizing that litigation is not for me, which I still practice ironically, I have to find a way to now really use these skills that I have, use this tremendous education that I have, and do something different with it. I just took a leap of faith and said, I don't know what I'm gonna do, but I'll find another way. So I started contracting, which means, you know, you're a solo practitioner and work on cases for random firms, when it works for you. I took on a lot less work and I went back to modeling full time. 

 

On Going Back to Full Time Modeling

“People who look like me still weren't really represented, but it was going in that direction and I was getting good work.”

 

I started modeling when I was 13. It was always something really fun and exciting that I loved. Especially, you know, in the nineties, like the era of the supermodel. I was like, Yeah, this is awesome. And it was good money back then. I didn't even work that much as a model. I, you know, like I wasn't great. I wasn't crushing it, but the jobs that I did get paid well. So it helped pay for school, for travel, for fun activities that I wanted to do.

And actually, when I left the big law firm, I went back to modeling full time. So that was still brewing in the background and things in the modeling industry were changing. People who look like me still weren't really represented, but they were getting there. It was going in that direction a lot faster than most of the other industries in this country. So that was exciting to be a part of and it felt good and I was getting good work. I knew that I hit a wave and when you're on that wave, you have to ride it. 

 

On How Instagram Changed the Modeling Industry

"It Made Traditional Models Like Me Obsolete"

 

And then something interesting happened. So at the same time that my modeling career is taking off, Instagram really changed the name of the game for social media and it actually became a way for me to get better work and better visibility and build a completely different type of business. 

At the same time, it also made traditional models like me obsolete. I saw the writing on the wall really early on. Because I would go to castings and auditions, and they started asking me for my Instagram page. They wanted to see my following. They wanted to see who else I was working with on Instagram. And they, at that time, were more interested in hiring people who weren't models. But I could see the trend. I could already see where things were going. And brands were starting to send me stuff and ask me to post, and I just thought, well, if they can get somebody to post for free and do all the work, basically create the entire marketing campaign for them. Why would they hire a model, eventually they're not going to. And that's really what has happened. 

The social media industry is a billion dollar industry. All of the marketing budgets for every company now goes into influencer campaigns and traditional modeling work has all but disappeared. When I do get castings, I don't even go a lot of the time because the rates are terrible and it's not good work. Unless you are a strictly runway model, that's a very specific thing. You know, like you're six foot very, very skinny. Have a very specific look. Those girls at least used to work like, gosh, they would do like 86 shows in a year all over the world. I knew some of those women. That was a hard life. I don't know if it's still that way, but other than that, like nobody's making a living off of modeling anymore. 

 

On How She Used the Industry Insight to Evolve Her Work

Became A Mom and Pivoted to the World of Mom Blogging

 

I had built a pretty significant following from my modeling portfolio, which is where like my Instagram page was, my modeling portfolio, cause that's how I would get modeling work. But then I realized, oh, these companies are sending me things, maybe I can ask them to pay me to put the campaign together. And it wasn't much at first, but then they said yes. They would pay me like a couple hundred bucks here and there to take the picture and post it. Because I had a team, because I wasn't just posting photos that were on an iPhone. I was working with some of the best photographers in the world and makeup artists and stylists, and I was getting gowns from London, like I was putting together like killer content. 

And then I became a mom and I just pivoted. I said, Okay, well I'm gonna step out of the modeling world for a while. Maybe I'll get some work as a pregnant model, but what can I do with this? And I stepped into the Wild West. I stepped into the very interesting and exciting world of mom blogging and it's been an awesome journey. It's such a fun, interesting, supportive, awesome community. And these moms do well. They crush it. They make bank because really the money and social media, at least in the past, has been in the mom marketing.

Just like it always was, right? Like traditional television advertising. My other major in college was communications and advertising, so I know a lot about this, but marketing traditionally always targets moms because moms were in the home, moms had the buying power, and moms bought everything. You're not limited to just fashion. Oh, it's cleaning products, children's products, toys, food, toiletries, beauty care products. Anything and everything you could think of a mom can market. So that's where the industry evolved. In that sense. It's, for me, it's been fascinating to watch and to be a part of. 

 

On Leveraging Her Platform to Promote Racial and Social Justice

"I Had A Platform And People Were Paying Attention"

 

So once I realized that I had a platform and people were paying attention and listening, I decided, well, I don't just have to talk about being a mom. I don't just have to talk about fashion. I can talk about things that I actually care about. And I did, I started posting about the volunteer work that I would do, or if there was something globally, like a crisis going on that I could help draw attention to, I did that. And that happened quite a few years ago. But then in 2020, when George Floyd was murdered, it completely shifted social media. Because now social media is actually a place where everybody can be an advocate and it brings a lot of attention to causes that people wanna know about.

And it can actually change the narrative. It can provide information. It can be educational, it can be a place of support. And that was something I really responded to. It was like, Okay, here we go. This is what I want to be a part of. I want to be a part of communities and help build communities that help inform people. Help people feel like they're actionable things they can do in their own lives. Help build communities, make a difference, educate. 

A lot of people responded when I started doing that. And they let me know, like, we're really interested in this too. And then I still, like, I, I went back to practicing law. I'm full-time now. It's great. I work for an outstanding law firm based out of Nebraska and I work remotely and I love it. So it's always evolving, all the different things I do. It's constantly evolving and sometimes they mesh and come together and sometimes they don't. 

 

On the Causes that are Important to Her

Human Trafficking, Taking Care Of Our Disabled Veterans, Homelessness, Women's Rights And Racial Justice

 

So the causes that I talk about on social media are the causes that have always mattered to me. Human trafficking, taking care of our veterans, disabled veterans, homelessness, women's rights and racial justice. So it'll be really interesting to see what happens in the future, because unfortunately, I think social media is oversaturated. And in the last year there's been so much misinformation and so many issues with Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. So we'll see what happens with that. But that's why I wrote a book because I wanted something substantive and real that you could put in your hands and read that isn't necessarily susceptible to how changeable social media is. 

 

On Her Upcoming Book

Life as a Mixed-Race Black Biracial Woman

 

The book is about my life as a mixed-race black biracial woman. It's about my experiences, but it's more than just telling my story. I wanted it to be something actionable and tangible where people feel like they walk away having gained something from the book. So it is educational, but it's also about how these things that we're told in life are a disadvantage are actually your superpower.

Like being too sensitive, like being a mixed-race kid, which I was told all the time was, you know, like I'm a mistake. You have to choose one or the other, and how hard that was. But really it made me a Renaissance woman because I learned how to be non-binary racially and exist in a fluid way that's totally outside of the box from anybody else.

And that translates into my spiritual life. It translates into my community. It translates into my professional choices. And there's so much freedom in that. And not just freedom, but so much growth and so much evolution. Like we as human beings don't have to keep putting ourselves in these little boxes. And we don't have to keep living by these rules that society tells us we can only be this, or you can only do that. There's only one way to do this or look at this or think about this. 

So that's what the book is about. It is telling my story. It is educational about race. It is starting the conversation about being mixed race in America because that's a topic that America just hasn't even begun to approach. It's very awkward. Nobody really knows what to say about it. And creating a community for mixed race people to feel like they belong. Hey, it's a shared experience. 

So many of my friends that I've spoken to who are mixed race, they'll tell me Wow, we've had the exact same life. We've had the exact same experiences, but we've all experienced it in isolation. Like we don't have a community. We're all going through the same thing alone. In the past. I think things are gonna change and are changing. So the book is about all of that. 

 

On What Leadership in Law Means

Integrity, Empathy and Ingenuity

 

Integrity, empathy and ingenuity. Integrity is everything in this profession. We need more of it. Again, like working for someone like Paul. He's so smart and he's so brilliant. He didn't have to play shady games, and I just respect him so much and judges respect him, other attorneys respect him. He just does great work. So there's no need for time wasting and wasting clients' money and wasting resources. It's like just do good work. Be a good person, have integrity, and let that speak for itself.

 

On One Thing to Improve about the Legal Industry

Firms need to treat people like human beings with lives, not commodities expendable for a bottom dollar

 

That's where ingenuity comes in. The business models of law firms need to change. There needs to be a total revolution, and one of the law firms I'm working for now is leading that revolution, and I am super excited to be a part of it. Law firms need to start treating people like human beings with families, with children, with lives. We're not commodities that are expendable for a bottom dollar. And really taking time to develop attorneys, teach things like integrity and demonstrate it from the top down. 

 

On One of the Many Reasons She is Practicing at Hilger's Graben

A Strict “No Jerks” Policy

 

The [firm’s] entire business model is awesome. So the number one firm policy that they take extremely seriously. The number one most important thing is no jerks. It's written down, no jerks. Don't be a jerk to your clients, to your coworkers, to your staff. And they have really developed that concept. Not being a jerk isn't just about not screaming at somebody. It also means having consideration for things like deadlines. If you have information and you know something is due Monday, but you have that information ahead of time, give the paralegals and the associates an immediate heads up. And don't give it to them at 5:00 PM on a Friday when they're walking out the door and you know, they have kids that they're trying to get home to, or you know that there's something going on that weekend. Be conscious about the people you work for and also don't give arbitrary deadlines.

Just like really crappy things like calling somebody at 5:30 AM in the morning demanding, like an immediate response to something that you don't really need then, but you know, they're asleep and they're not on their phone. Just like simple, basic human civilities. You would think that the expression no jerks would be self-evident, but it's not.

So at this firm, because that's such a core value in their culture, every person that they have hired and that they have attracted, like they've vetted them on this kind of basis. Do they fit in with this culture? How important is this to them? That's just like one example. I have a million examples of that and what's wonderful is I think that women are leading the change. 

I met this woman who just joined the firm. She was a prosecutor and she set some awesome boundaries when she was the head of her department. She just said, Nope, like I leave at this time every day to take care of my child, to cook dinner. That's what it is and I want you to go home at the same time. Like I don't wanna be getting emails from you. I don't wanna see that you're online working. Like we all do this together. We all take some mental health time, some quality time, and be with our families. And it really changed the entire dynamic in the office. And people realize like, Oh, this is a boundary you can set and it's not totally unattainable and actually makes us better at what we do. 

 

On Something People Misunderstand About Her Work

You Can Be and Do Many Things at Once

 

I think people just don't understand what I do. People are just generally confused. I just posted a reel on my Instagram page and I pinned it to the top because so many people are just like, Wait, I don't understand. Are you a lawyer or are you a model? Or are you a content creator? 

I'm like, I'm all three. Well, how does that work? I don't understand. Are they related? Do you do them all at the same time? 

And I'm like, No. So in this reel, it's just like 12 seconds. It's so funny, but it's just like little clips of all the different things I do. And it's just to show that it doesn't have to make sense. It doesn't have to be cohesive. It's what works for me. 

 

On Practical Advice to Leaders in Law

Don't Be Afraid to Make People Uncomfortable

 

Don't be afraid to make people uncomfortable. And I don't mean that like don't be a jerk and just say Oh, I'm sorry this bothers you, or, I'm sorry I offended you. I don't really care. That's not what I mean. I mean don't hide parts of yourself. Don't be afraid to speak up and say what you really want, even if you're not a hundred percent sure what that looks like.

Don't make yourself small and don't worry about how it's going to make other people uncomfortable because it is going to make other people uncomfortable. When people don't understand something, when they encounter something different, they are uncomfortable. It's only through that discomfort that change happens.

If you get comfortable in your discomfort, then you allow other people to get comfortable with discomfort, and then there's a lot of growth. It's okay to not be comfortable all the time. 

 

On Self-Care

Prioritize Rest and Sleep

 

Sleep because I'm a mom with a young kid. Yeah, just sleep like when you hit that breaking point and you just need silence and you don't have to be a mom to relate to this. You've hit max capacity. You're bandwidth, it's fried. We live in just such a hyper-productive consumer society that just pushes and pushes and pushes until we're depleted. 

Like you don't have to get to that point. You have every right to take a nap. You have every right to just stop and walk outside and say, You know what? I'm just gonna lay on the grass, close my eyes and be quiet for a minute, cause I just need silence. You have every right to take vacations. Take them. That's a luxury. I recognize that people with lower incomes and in different situations don't have that luxury, so I recognize the privilege in saying that. So wherever you can take a break, however you can, like demand them, ask for them, take those breaks. 

Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession. 

Each episode explores the guest’s journey to leadership, the underlying principles that helped them make an impact, and devises ways listeners can apply these concepts in their own lives.

Subscribe or follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Audible, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. You can also follow @lawyerswholead on Linkedin, and Twitter. Let's celebrate and continue to build a community of leaders in law together.

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About the Author

Written by Sigalle Barness

Sigalle champions and grows Lawline’s brand awareness through impactful stories that are authentic, meaningful, and thought provoking. She designs communications strategies that underscore the why and how behind Lawline's work. Sigalle is an avid lover of music, video games, blogging, asking questions and all things food. She is also fluent in Hebrew and enjoys writing fiction, traveling and scuba diving.

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