The Constellation That Is My Life: Becoming A Black Female Trial Attorney (So Far)

Summary: Below I share about my educational background, an overview of my work history, and the guideposts that helped position me along the way.  Although I share much in this FFA blog from my own experience, I want the content to be about you and for you.  I’ll give insight into my life here and there so you know who I am.  Here’s a start.  It’s long.  I’m verbose.  It’s called being a lawyer.


The Early Years

It all started at Mother’s Day Out in 1991.  Okay, maybe not that far back.  I was born in 1989, so we can skip a few more years.  The easy synopsis is that I attended a private school “K through JD,” starting with St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas.  This little private school was foundational for me in so many ways: giving me life-long friends, presenting me teachers who nurtured my love of reading and writing, and connecting me to individuals who would be pivotal down the road.  If you hear him tell the story, he met me when I was just five years old while he was serving on the school board.  His kids were in school with me and my brother, though we staggered years.  You’ll hear about that man, Mike Gruber, later.  Point A.

To those who’ve heard this story, excuse me one more time.  To those who haven’t, it’s one of those guideposts that led me where I am today.  It was seventh grade, and I was bullied by fellow Black girls.  My mom is very fair skin, my dad is of a darker tinge.  Some said I’m not Black; others said I am because of the “one drop rule.”  I didn’t get a say in the matter.  I’m not a green-eyed, curly haired girl.  Just your average “yellow bone,” “light bright,” “clap on, clap off,” you know the drill.  Jokes aside, though, I didn’t feel Black enough or whatever-else-I-was-enough.  Because I couldn’t beat them, I decided to join them.  Whenever people would ask, “What are you?” I would reply simply, “Creole.”  Embracing that part of my heritage has taken me down a world of marvelous discovery I may not have found otherwise.  I’m pretty sure that seventh grade year was when I fell in love with internationalism and cultures, and where I walled myself off from [being] Black?  I’m struggling with the right word here.  Point B.

Fast forward to Ursuline Academy of Dallas, an all-girls’ private school in North Dallas, a school that honed my skills for the grind ahead.  It’s here where I discovered digital graphics and animation, AP anatomy, and studying abroad – what would I become?  It’s also where I began another journey of the PWI, the predominantly white institution.  See, St. E was very well mixed.  But my class at Ursuline had only five Black students out of 200.  I felt welcomed and safe, though.  I was quite surprised by my initial experience at college, then, when I couldn’t find white friends as easily as in high school.  Point C.


The Grind

The next seven years felt like a lot of stumbling, really, feeling my way around.  I’ve often joked that “I applied to 10 schools and Vanderbilt was number 11.”  Let me explain: I really wanted to go to a private, D-1 school for track, but not many of them gave much financial aid.  Dad really wanted me to go to Vandy, so he made me apply for the school and the scholarship.  Little did we know that I would be granted a full tuition scholarship as a Chancellor’s Scholar.  Off I went one week early to participate in an off-campus retreat with the other scholarship recipients… in Nashville summer… in a tent.  It was hot.  We had a blast.  Lots of laughs, maybe some injuries, and I felt right at home.  Point D.

I decided that week early to nix my orthopedic surgeon dream (sorry, Dad!) and pursue digital graphics and animation instead.  Turned out they only offered computer science at the time – with a whole lot of calculus.  My next attempt was to triple major in Spanish, French, and Japanese.  I was turned down.  Even though I couldn’t triple major, I still studied them all!  I studied abroad in Provence, France for one summer.  “It’s the first place I felt at home,” I’ve often shared.  Nobody asked what I am or where I’m from.  I just fit in.  Particularly in Nice, where everyone looked like they’re “mixed.”  It was refreshing.  Point E.

I was accepted to study broad in Kyoto, Japan too.  I passed on the opportunity.  Don’t do that.  Now, why I didn’t double major in one or two languages, or even minor in one, escapes my memory at this point.  What I do remember is that I stumbled into Political Science, which brought me to stumbling into law school applications.  Point F.

I also pledged the Mu Rho Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, Incorporated, yet another pivotal moment in my life – not just because it’s a lifetime commitment, not just because my chapter is amazing, but because it was an opportunity for me to feel seen and loved and respected and whole in the eyes of other Black women just like me.  Like I didn’t have to cower anymore wondering what “that group of Black girls” is saying about me (talk about paranoia!).  MP helped me heal, and these women are playing critical roles in my life today, from supporting me with business endeavors to covering my child spiritually as a godmother.  Point G. 

I’ll later share my thoughts about the finances for this private K-JD endeavor, particularly as I talk about student loans.  [Later: How to Survive Student Loans]  However, I do want to clarify that I recommend Vanderbilt for an undergraduate experience.  What’s more important than what I think about the school now looking back is seeing the orchestration of my life despite any earlier misgivings or lack of foresight.

As for law school, I don’t remember all the options I considered.  I do remember applying to Duke because it was ranked No. 6 for international law.  At the time, I was dead set on living abroad indefinitely, specifically France.  I learned that France doesn’t recognize our JD, only a Master’s or more advanced degree.  Duke offers a JD/LL.M in International and Comparative Law within the same three-year timeline.  So, on the same day of Vandy’s graduation, we drove to Duke for me to start just a few days later in May 2011.  Point G.


Finding My Way

I don’t come from a family of lawyers.  In fact, I’m not sure I was aware enough of my circle to even name a lawyer at the time.  Somehow Dad got me in touch with Mike Gruber, though I don’t remember how it happened.  I think it was in 2011?  That’s the same Mike Gruber from my St. E days as a child.  Now, the story goes like this: “He asked me if I wanted to be a transactional or trial attorney.  I said I didn’t know.  He told me to never say that again and instead to say I want to be a trial attorney.  And here I am today.”

It was a challenge, but I found my way.  That first semester (summer) was exciting and fun.  I’m a school nerd, so I loved the big books and the highlighting and organizing.  At the end of it all, I was in school for 21 years straight.  I’ve got to say that first year was probably the most reading I’ve ever had to do out of all of those years of school!  It was nice having a smaller class size that summer with all the students who were pursuing dual degrees.  Most of us completed the two degrees; some dropped one.  [Later: Should I Do the Dual Degree?]

I considered typing next that, “There’s nothing to prepare you for law school.”  I don’t think that’s true.  Working in the legal industry, particularly where you see legal writing, could be helpful because it’s at least an introduction to what you might need to learn in school even if you don’t yet know how to do it yourself.  Maybe even working before law school, at all, to know what you want from life and what you’re willing to do for it and how you want to go about getting it would be helpful too.  I imagine it reduces that floundering, what-am-I-doing-here feeling.

I read some books on what to expect in law school, but they still don’t quite get it right.  I didn’t understand that an “outline” was a massive notebook for each class.  I didn’t understand certain organizations have a whole database of outlines, and some organization’s outlines are better than others.  I didn’t know which professors to avoid or what “grading on a curve” meant.  I fought against joining a journal for a while because it didn’t originally interest me and I didn’t understand the relevance.  I didn’t get why on earth everyone was scrambling for a “Big Law” job when I was looking to support social entrepreneurship efforts and have my loans paid off by my public interest work.  And yes, I was the one who said “Mrs. Justice,” instead of Madam.  I’ve come a long way.  [Later: Boutique vs. “Big Law]


First thing, I joined a Christian Bible study group.  It helped ground me to find classmates sharing the same struggles of law school and the questions of how to marry this new career with our faith.  Second thing, I joined other organizations, including Black Law Students Association.  My heart was especially with the Public Interest Law Foundation.  We held fundraisers, the profits funding stipends for law students pursuing public interest summer opportunities.  Need any fundraising ideas?  I’m all for it!  I kept up with the international component too – studying legal Spanish, attempting to translate for an area non-profit, working in Madrid at a Spanish law firm for two months (1L summer), and studying abroad for one month in Geneva as part of the LL.M program (also 1L summer).  Point H.

I did join a journal, after all.  It was a great experience.  My writing wasn’t.  I think a journal is especially useful if you’re going into any litigation role where legal writing is key.  Time on a journal helps you perfect research and writing beyond the standard law school course, and, (most?) importantly, really hones those citation skills!  I can sometimes tell when a junior associate was not on a journal.  Get on a journal as early as possible!

I didn’t go to Big Law.  They wouldn’t have me.  I wasn’t top 10%.  I wasn’t far off from the coveted 3.5 either, but it wasn’t enough.  [Later: The Irony of the Top 10% - Clients Want Diverse Law Firms]  My 2L summer I happened to work at … Mike Gruber’s firm!  It was one of the top trial boutiques in Dallas, the furthest thing from my international-save-the-world idea.  But it was riveting.  My first three weeks I sat in on the Hunt Honeywell trial, replete with a trip down to the courthouse basement to see an actual jet engine as a demonstrative.  I sat with Tonia (Ashworth) Keusel, a paralegal on the team.  [Later: The Ages, Faces, and Stages of Mentorship]  Point I.

During my 3L year, I wasn’t sure what I was doing next.  Mike Gruber’s firm didn’t hire straight out of law school at that time.  I had considered applying to study abroad for the (year? semester?) in Chile but decided against it.  Don’t do that.  I thought maybe I’d clerk in Guam.  I even figured out a loophole to get my public interest pay-off while working abroad (find an American company to cover your salary, keep paying Uncle Sam, but live somewhere else).  Fortunately, I got the offer from the Gruber Hurst firm and started my permanent position in September 2014, after Bar Trip [Later: Is A Bar Trip Really Necessary?] and a tonsillectomy [Later: Bar Exam Horror Stories].  I primarily worked with some of his other name partners, Michael Hurst and Shonn Brown.  Point J. 

When the two of them joined another trial boutique in 2016, I followed.  Point K.  I also got married that year.  Point L.  Bought a house the next.  Point M.  Had a baby the next.  Point N.  Jumped to Big Law the next.  Point O.  Sold the house the next.  Had the second baby the next.  Point P.  Made partner, then moved to my current firm.  Point Q.  It’s been a whirlwind.

When I made the jump to Big Law, I actually linked up with Mike Gruber again.  This time, I worked primarily with him and Brian Mason.  The two had moved over from Mike’s prior firm. 

[Later: Don’t worry, I’ll also have plenty to share about trial practice generally, trial boutique life specifically, jumping to Big Law, what it’s like here now, moving between firms and merging with others, getting married in the middle (including whether to change your name), becoming a mommy lawyer, the perfect number seven.]


What’s Ahead

On October 20, 2021, I was notified that I was named to the partnership at my prior firm, effective January 1, 2022.  I returned from maternity leave in June of that year and joined my current firm in September.  I moved over with Mike Gruber and Brian Mason, also partners, as well as three associates, a paralegal, and legal assistant.  I’m exercising these new partner muscles, learning how to empower junior associates and what a reasonable monthly invoice to a client looks like, working on my elevator pitch about what I do and figuring out how to “make the ask.”  What’s ahead is being that lighthouse I mentioned in my previous post.  Hopefully this platform helps me do that, including by putting me with readers like you who will direct the content and connect me with other attorneys to further refine my message and my career.

Before I end, though, I want to leave you with this.  We don’t know what’s next.  We can plan.  We can hope.  We can pivot.  But we can’t (always) predict (accurately).  I’m a living testimony.  Each of the points above is some dot somewhere in the heavens.  I don’t know what picture it’ll make when my time on earth is done.  Will it be more iconic than the Big Dipper or larger than Hydra?  

Dots on a page with lines connecting some dots like a constellation map

[See?  It's a night sky.  Each dot is a star.]

What I do know is that these pivotal moments in my life, these little specks of time, will complete their own constellation.  The same is true for you.

Let’s not spend our whole life trying to figure out the picture.  Let’s just enjoy and learn from the specks while we’re livin’ ‘em.

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