Teranga: The Senegalese Word That Guides This Lawyer’s Leadership
On this week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle interviews Anta Cissé-Green, Senior Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs and General Counsel of the State University of New York (SUNY). Anta welcomes listeners in with an incredible story rich with family, culture, and reflection that ultimately shaped her education-driven legal career. Through the Senegalese term Teranga, Anta provides a formula for lawyers to be powerful leaders through hospitality, generosity, and inclusivity. Listen to the full interview or read highlights of the interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.
On Why She Pursued Law
Inspired By a Lawyer Representing Her Employer in a Lawsuit
So I wish I could be on par with a lot of my colleagues and say I wanted to be a lawyer since I was young, but it never even crossed my mind. I took five years off between undergraduate and law school. And during that time I was in retail management. I was at a number of stores, but the last one was Mandee's, which is a privately owned company.
I was running the largest store at the time, which is still located in Ozone Park, New York. It was a great place. I, I like to say that it sort of gave me my wings with respect to management and operations. And so at the time, I had quite a couple of managers that I was training. And that particular day, one of the longtime workers came in four hours late for her shift. Didn't call, didn't get a replacement. Nothing, which they knew was the protocol. And at the time we were just about to close. So I said, thank you for coming in anyway, but we don't need you.
Now, mind you, we had not always gotten along, but there was still at least some level of respect. Well, not today. She called me some absolutely horrible names that reflected the bigot that she was. And I fired her on the spot. Now, the reason it's a wrinkle is because we were a union store, right? And so, of course, a lot of hurdles you have to get through. I was fortunate. I knew this. We had gotten tons of training, but she ultimately did file suit against us.
I was deposed. I had to testify and I worked very closely with the lawyer. And I say all the time, I don't remember his name. I wish I remembered his name. He was so instrumental. He held my hand, told me not to be nervous. He took all the time to train me and get me up to speed. We ended up winning. She got nothing. But at that time I had a sorority sister who was in law school and I called her and I was like, I think I wanna go to law school. Do you think I would be good? She's like, you would be great. Go ahead and do it. And so that was it.
On How Her Parents Shaped Her Life
Inspired By Her Parents And Upbringing, She Always Wanted To Be A Mother
So my parents came here from Senegal when I was five. They both worked at the UN. My father was actually recruited working for the Ministry of Finance. He came here in '77. A year later, we came in '78, grew up in Queens, Lefrak, always.
And it all stems from my mother. She took English when she was in Senegal, but she didn't speak a lot of English. The way she tells it is she stayed home maybe for about a year, if even. It was four of us because my youngest sister at the time was about a year old. She went to BMCC, uh, Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York, and she got her Associate's Degree. She was fluent in French and so she started as an assistant to the Tunisian Ambassador to the U.S. And she does this all the time. She has this remarkable way of just making people love her. Just love her and rely on her and like, just be lost without her. And she worked her way up. And it was her ambassador actually, who was like, listen, I would love for you to stay here forever. But you know, there's the UN, there's UNICEF. There's a lot of opportunities for you. And she had to build up her courage and skills.
She finally left, went to UNICEF, was program budget manager for over 20 years and all that while we're living in Queens, with four kids. Now she's got six kids. She worked from seven to three, came home, cooked every single day for us. And like, we had a ball, they taught us music, how to dance. They of course insisted we speak the language. And she was gorgeous. She knew how to dress. She loved fashion and they used to have parties in our apartment. It was great. We didn't realize it was like an adult only because we were, you know, accepted. We weren't locked in our rooms. And so just to see her mingling through the party, like she was just the life of everybody and so giving, so it all stemmed from her. I just wanted to be my mother. That's all I wanted. And so that was the desire. Right? Just monogamous, always had to have a boyfriend, try to find the perfect one.
But yeah, my mother and my father they've really instilled in us a lot of traditions. Most of it, I didn't really understand growing up. But when I tell my story and I think about everything that we have been through as a family, me as an individual, it all just like folds into one another. And it seems like it was just written and it was all supposed to make sense. Of course it doesn't make sense when you're going through it. But when I have opportunities like this to think about things, it's like, wow, it's all perfect. It was all made to be together.
On Meeting Her Husband and Starting a Family
A Chance Encounter in Mexico Became 18 Years of Marriage and Three Children
Me and my girlfriends go to this club, we get there, it's closed. So we're about to get on the bus and we hear all of these other people running across the street to catch the bus. It's you know, my now husband, his identical twin brother, and like four of his friends. They were like the life of the party. Laughing, making jokes, getting to know everybody. We all got off, went to the same club. And then before I know it, like he was coming up to me, he's like, can we dance? I was like, yeah, sure. And then he was like, I would really like to get to know you. Can I take you out to dinner tomorrow? I was like, what? Yes. Girl, we had two fantabulous days together.
He at the time was living in Philadelphia. And I was still in Queens. And literally a month after I got home, he was coming up every single weekend to Queens. After six months, he moved up and then we got married and now we have three kids. I have a daughter and two sons. My daughter's 13. My boys are 15 and 17. And we will be married for 18 years.
On Being a Senegalese and American
A Community and Culture Around the Term Teranga
So one thing which is really significant to me, because I was born there, we grew up here, if you walked into our house, it was like, little Senegal just happened to be in Queens. My parents still spoke Wolof, which is our main language, of course, French is the official language. They tried to drill the French in us. It didn't work. Um, you know, we took it in school, so eventually we all got it. But, you know, they would have days like Sundays, it would be like, okay, anyone who goes two hours without speaking English, you get $20. That's how much they tried to instill it. But it was hard and I know I have a lot of friends and a lot of people who can relate.
It's like at the time it wasn't cool to be you and authentic and wear my Senegalese clothes when it was a holiday. And, God, bring lunch to school when you gotta heat it up and it's either fish and it's gonna, you know, so there were a lot of things that were not accepted.
In Senegal, the term that we go by, that identifies us is Teranga. T-E-R-A-N-G-A. Teranga. The simple meaning is hospitality. But it goes beyond that. So anyone who's visited Senegal and I encourage you, strongly encourage you to visit. Anyone who has visited immediately feels the arms of the country wrapped around them. This is how we welcome you. We welcome strangers. We treat strangers like family. If you go visit someone, if you don't eat, they will be very upset. They will be extremely upset if you don't spend the night and spend the day and allow them to bring the community members and extended family to come say, hello, this is how we are. And I know a lot of people can relate to that. But that word in and of itself, as soon as you say it, people understand it's about welcoming. It's about being included. It's about being family. It's about being connected.
Because we were in Lefrak, hop, skip, and jump away from JFK, anybody who was Senegalese that came to the U.S. through JFK, stayed at our house. We were like the original Airbnb for all Senegalese people. So although we had three bedrooms, one was for the guests, one for my parents, and then everybody else shared the third bedroom.
But it was fantastic because every Saturday, my parents' friends came over, my mother cooked all day long and they would dance, they would sing, they would laugh. Everybody remembers Saturday at the Cisse household, you get to eat, you get to laugh and have a great time. And that's what we remember.
On How Teranga Shaped Her Values
Kindness, Fairness, Honestly, and Humility
[Teranga] really builds into some of my key values, kindness, fairness, honesty, and humility. So when you think about these four things that I've been able to recognize as things that are essential to me, that energize me, that really attach to who I am. I can relate it directly back to the principles that my parents taught me, the uniqueness of Senegal, and the term Teranga.
It's about inclusion, treating everybody the same way. So fairness, humility. You always sit in the back and you try to push people forward as best as you can. Don't always take the credit. Leave room for others. Um, and kindness. Kindness is the ultimate value that I know I have taken from all of my experiences.
And sometimes of course it's a double edged sword because sometimes you can be so kind that people take advantage of you. And it's little things like my parents, my elders, right. Don't speak until you're spoken to. Look them in the eye when you're speaking. Don't get into grown folks' business. All right. So you just sit back and you listen to them talk and if they ask you a question, then you come in.
On Her Upbringing in the Context of the Legal Profession
Reframing Addressing Superiors and Speaking Up
Now think about that in the context of the legal profession. I'm an associate. You're a partner. You are superior to me just in the traditional sense. And to me, you're my elder. So think about how I now have to work to get rid of that.
It's not speak when you're spoken to. It's speak when you have an idea, when you have something to say. Still look me in the eye when you're talking to me, but listen, you can't just sit in the background and just wait for someone to ask you a question, cause they never will. So it took a lot of experiences for me to really start to delve in and identify what my values are and what makes me me.
On the Journey to Law Firm to In-House Practice
Reexamining Partnership, The Firm Experience of a Black Muslim Lawyer Mom, and Wanting to Expand Her Skillset
So when I left the firm, I went in-house to NYU, in a legal corporate department. And the reason I did that, I knew I didn't wanna be partner, but I wanted to be a GC ultimately, of a nonprofit organization. So it took me a while. It took me a while to realize that's what I wanted, because I just continued with what I learned in law school. You go to a law firm, you make partner. That's what success looks like. And especially, you know, as a black woman, I wanted to be one of the first, right. So I aimed for that. But in aiming for that, I never actually stopped to think about if that's what I wanted.
So it was very, and I'll say traumatizing being at a firm, right? I had all three kids while I was at the firm, working in corporate M&A initially. Not really getting seen. Some of the things that were said to me, including, oh, you're a mother, don't worry about volunteering for this program. I'm sure you have other things to do. And then God forbid they, they find out I'm Muslim. Right. So I fast during Ramadan. So if I go to a lunch, a group lunch and everybody's eating like, oh, I'm okay. I'm fasting. You're fasting? You're Muslim? Oh, you don't look Muslim. So, you know, all those things in a law firm setting, I'm sure many people have similar experiences, but it's because of those experiences of not being included, not being given the good assignments, not really learning. I was almost a fifth year attorney and I was like, what am I learning? What is my skillset?
So the closer and closer I got, and we started talking about partner and what I need to do. It was like, do I really want this, why am I doing this? You know, the more you start to learn about what the partnership track is, what the role is. You're like, okay, I make partner. I'm not just gonna be relaxing. I gotta do twice as much work. I gotta recruit, I gotta market. I gotta get clients. If I'm not making money, guess what? Them three kids ain't eating either, you know, just more and more sort of thinking, do I wanna do this type of work forever? And at the time I was a trust and estates attorney. And I didn't think I had a lot of options because typically, either you stay at a firm, go to a small firm or you go in-house to a wealth management or a trust company. Right. There weren't a lot of tracks but I knew that I needed to expand my skill set. I needed to expand my portfolio of knowledge. And that's why I, I really locked onto the nonprofit area.
On Looking Inwards to Unearth Her Calling
Used a Career Coach to Identify Her Values
I was at NYU for a number of years. I thought I had done everything that I could possibly do, and I really needed help. I had spoken to quite a few friends who talked about a career coach. And I thought that was the route to go. So I found a career coach and I was very deliberate. I'm not shy to say it. I wanted a black woman who could understand, who has been in the industry, who's had the experience who could really help guide me to my next step to become GC.
I found that woman, Shirell Gross, please Google her. She's absolutely amazing. And she's like, we need to know who you are. She gave me a ton of homework, ton of assignments. And all of it was focused on me, which was very weird. Right? So she gave me four questions that I was supposed to answer. I can't even remember the questions, but every single answer was either something to do with my children, my family, my colleagues, my friends.
So when I sent it to her, our next session, she was like, I'm glad you did the work, but this is not the work. None of this is about you. We need to learn about you so we can figure out what path you need to take for your journey, what skill sets you need to develop. And this is also not about just the profession. It's about you as an individual. So I need you to answer the questions for you.
Oh, I remembered one question was what makes you happy? And I said, my family. And she said, without a doubt, no question family's important, but what do you do that makes you happy? I was like, I don't understand. I'm like I told you in my family, she's like, no, she said, this is something just for you. What makes you happy? Is it going to the salon? Getting a massage? I was like, oh, well, yeah, I have that stuff, but that's not as important. She said, that's where you're wrong. If you are not making yourself happy, if you're depending on others to make you happy, you're never gonna be happy. And you have to learn to be with yourself, to understand yourself, love yourself.
On Facing a Past Trauma
The Tale of the Terrible Fifth Grade Teacher
And it wasn't until after a few sessions that I actually shared a story with her that I had never shared with anybody, but my siblings. And it's a story of when I was in fifth grade, I had a teacher who reminded me of Mariah Carey. She had curly hair, five inch heels, and tight jeans, but she was terrible.
She was an absolutely horrible teacher. I used to love school. I was the kid who did homework during recess. I loved math. I loved English. It doesn't matter what it was. And I remember the first day we had recess indoors because it was raining. I was doing my math homework, and I was so excited. She came around. I was like, look, Mrs. Surland, I finished my homework. She took my paper. She raised it up to the class. She said, everybody pay attention, take a look at what Blackie did.
Blackie is not playing during recess. Blackie is doing her math homework. And then she ripped it up and she said, don't be like Blackie. And she coined that term. So everybody in that class called me Blackie. Now everybody in that class lived in my building. Right. So everybody called me Blackie in the hallways in the building. From that day, I shut down. I never did a piece of homework. I forged my mother and my father's name on all report cards. I never volunteered. I never talked to her if I didn't have to talk to her, unless she reached out to me. And I always remembered it. Right. But I didn't really connect it to any part of me or my, you know, my journey or anything until I was talking to Shirell and she was like, girl, she was like, do you know what that experience did?
I was like, yeah, you know, it took away my self-esteem. She's like, no. Because I shared with her that from that day, I didn't wanna do anything. Yeah I went to college, you know, and I did well, I got a 3.0 when I graduated, but I didn't really put my all into it cause school who cares? But education was important. Remember, my parents came from the UN and if you look at even the statistics today, women in Senegal do not get the attention that they need. They don't have the opportunities for education. And that's another reason why my parents left Senegal to give us that.
And I knew that, but at the same time, it was like, okay, if I do work, or if I'm a geek or people know I'm a geek, or I do well, it's like, they're gonna make fun of me like Mrs. Surland did, they're all gonna call me Blackie. And all of those words didn't go through my brain every single day, but it was just the you're not good enough. Don't even bother trying. It's not worth it. Just don't bother. Which is basically what Mrs. Surland was telling me. It wasn't until law school. Honestly, I loved law school. Like I realized in law school that I was good at something. I was good at analyzing. I was good at writing. I was good at putting together an argument.
And even now, I'm realizing I didn't have the opportunity to really invest in myself. Right. And I didn't realize the impact of that particular experience until this day. It still bothers me. You know? I still think that way, my self esteem is...ugh. Now when I think about it also, you know, I, I sort of tear up, but a big part of it was, I didn't want my mother to see me as a failure. Cause she's the one I looked up to. Right. She's the one I wanted to be. And so for me to be a disappointment to another authority figure, like Mrs. Surland, who then would relay to my mother that I'm worthless. I'm not going anywhere. Like I couldn't be that to my mother. And I only told my mother this story two years ago and when I told her she was balling. She was like, why didn't you tell me? And I was like, I didn't wanna disappoint you.
And I had not connected that, you know, until I got older. And I had never told that story to anyone. My siblings knew, but then it made me realize, like, I need to learn from it and I need people to learn from it. And I knew it was something that was deep in my core because when I had my baby girl the first thing in my mind was nobody's gonna bully her. Nobody's gonna tell her she's worthless. She's gonna love her skin. She's gonna love her hair. She's gonna love every part about her. And nobody 's gonna tell her any different, right. Because I didn't want her to go through the same thing. So I already knew in my brain that it was there and I wanted to prevent my daughter from it. But I hadn't really dug deeper until I had those sessions with Shirell.
You know when I think back on certain things, it definitely comes back to that without a doubt. It absolutely comes back to that. Then you add that with just being raised in two different cultures. One was right, one was wrong depending on the location. Not knowing who I should be. And then having that desire for people to like you, to want you, to welcome you, to include you, because I wasn't included. From fifth grade onwards, I was never included. And part of it was because I never put myself out there anymore to be included. Cause I did not wanna be rejected.
On The Importance of Sharing Her Story With Her Team
Articulating Who You Are and Your Philosophy, Creates Trust, Clarifies Expectations, and Gives Space to Help Others Articulate Who They Are
Listen, if I can do half the good my mother has done in her life, you know, inspire people, support them, whatever I can do, it really does mean a lot to me. So when I first got to this position, I had gone through a ton of sessions with Shirell. She helped me figure out, you know, my values, my leadership style, and really helped me put it on paper. So not only did I understand it and continue to own it, but so I could also articulate it to people.
Because I was in so many professional situations where I didn't know what my superiors expected. There was no discussion about expectations, right? Or likes, dislikes, pet peeves, or even a discussion about how they like to lead. And so I recognized my desire to be in this position was to be able to make a difference to guide people. To build a team. And if I'm gonna do that, people need to know who I am. And I realize it's kind of foreign for some people. And I understand that. And so sometimes they may not receive it the way that you would like them to. And I completely get it because not everybody, you know, is comfortable having those conversations and being as vulnerable.
But if I'm in this position, granted, I understand you're a team. You didn't put me here. The board put me here, but we are now a team and I need us to be a team. I need you to trust me. And I wanna be able to trust you. The only way to do that is for you to really know who I am. And so I share my philosophy. I share, here's what I expect. If I'm in the office early, it doesn't mean you have to be in the office early.
If I stay late, it doesn't mean you have to stay late. At all. And so when I got here, first thing I did, I had one-on-one meetings with every single person who fell under me. And it didn't matter what their title was. It didn't matter their function. And I asked them the same questions. How long have you been here and how did you get to SUNY? What do you like doing, what do you love about your job? What could we do better and how can I help you with your goals and your professional development? And I told them, I told every single one of 'em and I even tell candidates that I interview now, my goal is to build a team that supports one another, regardless of where you are, who you are, what you do.
So if you are lucky to come to SUNY and work with us, I would be very happy to have you. I will work with you. We will all work with you to develop the skills that you need to get you to the next level, whether you stay at SUNY or you go elsewhere, because at the end of the day, the work that you do here with us, the impact that we have on you will be everlasting.
So I want you to have a good experience. And if you happen to leave SUNY, which I will support, because I understand you may not wanna be here forever. I will support you. We will challenge you, get you the skills you need to make you marketable. So you can go to the next. Because your success is my success. And if you're not happy here, you go elsewhere. You're gonna trash us. And while it should not matter, it does, it matters to people physically, emotionally, mentally. And I was in places where I woke up every day crying, cause I had to go to work cause I was miserable and I never wanted anyone who works with me to feel like that.
So my leadership style, kindness, fairness, honesty, inspiration, team building, encouragement, strength and support. And if I don't have a team, I can't do anything.
On The Importance of Education in Her Journey
Connecting her Upbringing with her Children’s Educational Experiences in Public, Private, and Abroad
Another connection to this part, to this whole thing, right? Um, two things. So one when I worked with my career coach, right. And we got through some of my personal hurdles, we did get into the career and she was like, okay, you wanna go to a nonprofit? What industry? And I wrote down a whole bunch of industries. She's like, okay, we need to narrow this down. I was like, well, education, cause you know, it's really important. She's like, okay, K to 12, higher ed, what do you wanna do? You wanna train? You wanna be a teacher? I was like I think I wanna go to higher ed. Right. At least for now. I can see there's lots of opportunities to be GC.
And she was like why education? Told her the story of my parents, but it comes full circle to my children. So my oldest, who's now 17, is a junior in high school. When he was, he was in first grade in one of the New York private schools and they wanted him to repeat. And I said, why, what is the issue? Well, we just don't think he's up to snuff. And I'm like, that's not good enough. You're gonna tell me why you want him to repeat. And you're gonna tell me what the plan is. If you want him to repeat, like you must have a target, you must have something that you're trying to fix. What is the problem?
And it was terrible, absolutely terrible. We pulled him out of there. He ended up going to a Catholic school in New Jersey. In third grade, third grade, his teacher called me in and I thought he was in trouble. But she was like I'm not a professional based on my years of experience, I think your son is dyslexic. I was like, no people would've told me. She's like, no, he's dyslexic. I don't think he has ADHD. But I think as part of dyslexia, you can't really focus. And I think he has what's called dysgraphia where just the processing. No one had ever told me this or observed it, that he had a hard time listening to the teacher's instructions, reading the board, and then writing the homework in his notebook from the board. He couldn't do all three things at the same time. He could only focus on one. So if the teacher said, listen up, he's listening. He's not writing. So then at the end of the day, when he doesn't have the homework in the notebook, it's like, why didn't you have the homework? Why didn't you write it down? I was listening to you because he couldn't listen and write and read. And she was the first one to say this.
So she referred, she actually referred me to a phenomenal tutor who was way more than a tutor who officially diagnosed him with dyslexia and dysgraphia. She personally worked with the child study team in the school with the state, got him an IEP, got him a one-on-one tutoring, got, oh my God. Before you know it, he went to her once a week, he was reading these huge books. Like Greek mythology and yes. And he was like, can we go to Barnes and Noble? I'm like, now mind you, this is a kid who didn't even wanna read a comic book. And he loved her. And when I tell you the difference between when he started that process to like the end of the school year was just absolutely incredible.
Learned a lot from that process. And here's me, mama bear. And I'm like that all the time. I'm like, you're not gonna mess with my child. You're gonna gimme what I need. Then we get to the fourth grade, terrible teacher. Where it's like, I'm fighting to get him his support services, fifth grade, amazing teacher. Read Harry Potter with him, gave him more authors to read, and he did phenomenally well. While they didn't get straight A's in fifth grade, it was all check, check plus. Excellent, right. Which he wasn't getting in all the years before. It came ahead in sixth grade, with another terrible teacher who literally pulled him out of his support sessions because she thought she knew best.
It was very hard because I wanted him to get that support. But it wasn't at that school. So my father, and he still laughs at me, made a suggestion at the time that I send him to Senegal to go to boarding school. Now I was like, hell no, I love my kids. I want him to be here. Cause he did the same with one of my brothers when we were growing up.
I started looking at schools, especially in Jersey where we lived, the public school system was terrible. Private school was all Catholic schools, nothing nearby. So my sister at the time was working for UNFCD in Senegal. She had her kids in Senegal and she was like my son is old enough now to go to school. I'm looking for a school and I found this one. Maybe you wanna look at it. And sure enough, it's an international school. Middle states accredited, English and French bilingual curriculum. The principal herself, the executive director grew up here in Maryland, went to school, got her PhD. My sister, God bless her, she went, she did the tour. She asked all of my questions. She had me on FaceTime and I was like, I think we should apply.
And I think I said not only for my oldest, I said we should maybe have all three kids go. My husband was like, I'm not sending them to Senegal. No. I was like, babe, just talk to the principal and you'll see. So my, my husband has the gift of gab. He gets along with everybody and anybody. Fell in love with the executive director. She read his IEP, they prepared a new IEP for him. We applied and I got the kids involved. I told them, and at the time they were eight, 10, and 12.
So I got them involved. I'm like, listen, we're gonna apply to this school. It's in Senegal, but you'll get to live with Tomomi, you know, what do you guys think of that? Oh, we'll be with Muhammad, our cousin? I was like, yeah, you'd all go to the same school. So we applied, they helped me fill out the applications. Then when they got admitted, I told them and they were jumping up and down. They were ecstatic. And so my oldest did the boarding school for a year. Then I had my other son do the boarding school for a second year. And my daughter stayed with my sister and they lived there for two years in Senegal going to school.
On the What Her Children Took From Being Students in Senegal
Culture, Community, Traditions, and Celebrations
So definitely the culture overall. When I ask them now, that's what they say, cause they're like, to experience Ramadan in Senegal.
They were like, oh no, it's totally different. It's not the same. It's the community as well. So they knew, and especially my daughter, she knew the names of every store owner in the community. She used to do the grocery shopping for my sister and believe me at the time, it was like I wouldn't even drop 'em off to go do something by themselves here in the states.
So the culture is completely different. Houses are completely open. Everybody knows everybody else. So if the store owner saw her walking around and didn't have shoes he'd be like, you know, you're supposed to have shoes. Literally village raising your children. And they saw that firsthand, which they don't get here. Yeah, when we go to my parents' house, it's different, but just to experience all of that, plus the traditions, the celebrations, oh my God. They were there during the World Cup and the way they saw the excitement, God, I wish I could go for this World Cup.
But, yeah, the culture overall is the number one thing that they remember. And the proudest moment, was when my son had gotten into, apparently the school was in trouble and they had not spoken to the boarding school and they had not spoken to the families. And apparently what happened was their pantry was broken into. And they were not able to cook and they did not have the funds cause, especially in foreign countries like Senegal, everybody gets paid monthly. So if it's the 15th of the month, guess what? Ooh, you got a long way to go. Right? So apparently they were struggling financially. And so the breakfast, lunch, and dinner they provided on this one day, just grown boys. You're talking about 20 boys. They were not full.
So my son called me and he was like, yeah, can you just wire me $20? He was like we haven't really eaten. They've forced us to share and everybody's still hungry. I was like, I'm sorry, what is this? I was like, I'll call you back. Click, click. Didn't even wait for him. Call the vice principal. I was like, what is happening? And she explained to me and I was like, why would you not tell the family? And I found out that before my son called me, he actually sat all of the boys down in the boarding school and said, listen, I know we wanna do this ourselves, but the school isn't doing anything, I'm gonna call my mother. Are you all okay if I tell her that you are all miserable too, And they were like, yes, do it. Yes. Maybe if your mother talks to the principal, then our parents won't think, oh, we're lying.
And he did this on his own. He was like, well, they're my friends. I wanna make sure that they can eat too. I'm not doing it just for me. I'm telling you, even when I think about it today, I'm like, if that's the only thing I got from those two years, I'm like, I am good. I did my job.
And when you think about coming back to the big picture, right. That's when I focused on education, it made complete sense. It absolutely fits because I started off where my parents worked their asses off to give us these opportunities, provide us with education. I was stifled by a teacher who thought I did not deserve the opportunities in education. My kids are now in a situation or at least my son is in a situation where he's about to be stifled and add to that a learning disability that he now has to get over. And then my experience in law school and literally finding myself. Yeah. There's nowhere else I could go but higher ed.
On Practical and Powerful Advice for Mentors and Mentees
Be Your Authentic Self, Be Proud of the Work You’ve Done, and Accept Help
So the first thing that I always tell people, anyone, regardless of, if I'm your official mentor, anyone who reaches out and wants to have a conversation, I tell 'em, it's really important to be themselves. And I tell 'em my story, that it took me a long time to figure out who I am, to find my strengths, accept them, and now just push 'em out and talk about them. That's first and foremost. And especially when I talk to black female law students, it resonates, it absolutely resonates.
The second thing I tell them is to really support themselves. To be happy with the work that they have done with their story and not to beat themselves up. And both of those things are hand in hand. Because the more we beat ourselves up the lower our self esteem, the less confidence we have in ourselves, the less we think that we're capable of doing a job.
So those are the first two things. Then there, there's actually a third thing, which is really important. If someone reaches out to you and offers help, accept it. Receive it. Own it. So when I tell people, please reach out. Don't feel like you're being annoying or you're pestering me. If I don't answer the first time, I promise you I have thousands of emails. If you bring it back up to the top, I will make sure I respond. We will get together. We will talk. It's not a little thing. When people reach out, they really do wanna help. And I'm very genuine. I even tell people, listen, go into my LinkedIn, look at my connections. If there's someone you wanna meet that fits where you wanna be someday, let me know. I'll connect with you.
And I've connected my mentors to others. And I don't say it to be cocky, but the way that I have learned to develop relationships, they're strong relationships so that when I pick up the phone, they will answer. Because one, I don't ask for much, and when I do, people know that I really need it. And that's also been a weakness cause I should ask for more help and I'm working on that.
But my relationships really are genuine. Look at, in the small amount of time that we have spoken, several connections. You being Tunisian, you going to boarding school, and that means a lot to me. And I feel like I know you so well. It's a connection and it's always what I work off of. And for those who are looking to mentor others, number one, do it. Do not question whether or not you have the skills or the background or the pedigree. None of that matters. What matters is that you are an individual who was willing to give your time to someone else who needs your time.
And do it in a way that makes you comfortable. So a mentor doesn't mean, Hey, I'm gonna be in your life every day, all day. A mentor is an individual that you can talk to that will share their experiences. That will be genuine. That will tell you the truth. And that will help guide you to make the decisions that you need to make in your life. Not make the decisions for you and not tell you where to go, but help guide you.
I don't talk to my mentors every single day, but you know, part of me is like, oh, I haven't talked to Alan in a bit. Let me just send him a text. Or let me just send him an email, let me give him a call. And he knows. Right?
And a big part of it and I'm going back to the mentees, a big part of mentorship and networking. Although we all hate those words, it's relationships. That's the bottom line. So you will have many different circles in your life and they all have different purposes. And they change. Some people come in. Some people come out, right? And that's okay, but that's what you need. You don't always want the same people in your life day after day, especially when you're going through professional development, trying to get to a different place in your career.
You need that change. And this is different from friends. You have your friends, you have your family that is different. They will always be there to support you and guide you and curse you out and whatever you need. We are talking about your network and your relationships. While they intersect, ridiculously, they are separate. And so it doesn't mean you have to have 10 mentors at a time. Start with one. You be the one to reach out. You be the one to say, Hey, look, here's something that happened. I wanted to share with you because you helped me.
And again, it doesn't mean I email every single day or even every month. Every few months check in quarterly. That's really what it means. I think if people take those baby steps, it really is not as hard. And the other thing that I advise is if it doesn't feel good, then don't continue that relationship. If you don't connect with the individual, if it doesn't feel right, walk away, and now that's just an acquaintance and there's nothing wrong with that.
On What Leadership in Law Means
Encouragement, Inspiration, and Team Building
It's encouragement, it's inspiration, and it's team building. So encouragement is very important because first of all, women, women of color, people of color, we still are a very small minority in this profession. It is still a very stressful profession, especially if you're in big law, we need encouragement so that we can be resilient, we can persevere, and we need to be inspired. Um, and I think that's one of the things that has been very clear to me. I'm not alone. And I always feel alone. Can't help it, but there are some times that I feel more alone than other times. And that's when I feel like I have no purpose, nobody cares, nobody wants to hear my story. I'm not living up to snuff.
And so you need inspiration. And so if my story, my experience, my sharing, my outreach, if that can inspire even one person, then I've done my job, right? I would love to be able to inspire hundreds, thousands if possible, but you need to be inspired because while we need to develop a mechanism to continuously lift ourselves, the greatest inspiration comes from others. And so we will not be able to persevere. We won't be resilient unless people encourage us and unless we can see inspirational stories of others who are making the same journey. Who are in the same profession, who have done the same things, who desire to do the same things.
And then team building. So whether it is your circle of friends, it is your colleagues, it's your bar association, team building is necessary because we can't do it ourselves. And so I think all of those words really are interrelated and they come back to Teranga, kindness, a welcoming arm when you need it.
On One Thing She Would Improve About The Legal Industry
Make Law School Graduates More Prepared for Practice so They Can Be More Competitive and Have More Power to Choose Their Own Legal Path
So it may seem like a small thing, but I would say the training that we give to law students, don't get me wrong, I loved law school, it was worthwhile, it had a purpose, but I loved it. And remember I was going through this whole transformation, finding myself. Right. Which is why it fit very nicely for me.
But I recognize a lot of people do not. I also recognize that a lot of law schools are making changes to the curriculum to the processes to career services. But we do need to make law school more relevant to the practice of law. There needs to be more training. There needs to be more career services. Not in the traditional sense. Schools need to be creative. You cannot focus on the top 25 or the top 10, because that's not what it's about. It's about everyone who walks through those doors, wanting to be a lawyer, wanting to practice, wanting to give back. And that's what you need to focus on. I understand grades are important and I still talk about the importance of grades because that's still how it is now, but training for law students needs to change.
And I think if we can at least start the change, maybe there, we can very slowly get the rest of the profession to change along with it. Because if you now have more experienced lawyers who are graduating from these new generation law schools, guess what? You are going to have to change the way you recruit, because they're gonna have more options. And it's not just gonna be about the law firms. They're gonna have more options. And so they're not gonna continue to come to the firms, especially if you are not flexible, you're not diverse, you're not offering remote work as many are doing now. You gotta be competitive. Listen, benefits are huge with people nowadays, right? So it's not just enough that you have some sort of benefits, but they have to be meaningful. So as you change the people who are graduating, the skill sets that they have from law school, the profession will have no choice but to change. So if I had to pick my one, that's my one.
On Practical Advice to Leaders in Law
Take Opportunities As They Come to You
Take the opportunities as they come to you. Cause my journey wasn't traditional. And if I had not seized those opportunities, I definitely wouldn't be here now.
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.
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.
Sign up to receive the latest articles and insights from Lawline.